“If you tried to give rock and roll another name,
you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.”
(entry from Missouri Legends)
Chuck Berry is one of the most influential and popular singer/songwriter/
guitarists of our generation. Numerous artists have copied his on-stage flair over the years, from Elvis Presley to the Rolling Stones, and even the Beatles. Despite the worldwide fame and the riches that came along with it, Berry continued to make Missouri his home. It just goes to show that you can take the star out of the Show Me State, but you can’t take the Show Me State out of the star.
THE EARLY YEARS
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born on October 18, 1926, on Goode Avenue in North St. Louis. His family lived in the section of the city known as the Ville, which was a growing African American community and one of the few areas where black families could buy property. This distinction of owning their own property made them and their neighbors a part of the growing black prosperity movement.
Berry attended Sumner High School in St. Louis, but his carefree school years were cut short after he was arrested during a joy ride to Kansas City. At eighteen, he had a rap sheet that included armed robbery, which sent him to prison at the Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City.
RISE TO FAME
He spent his time wisely behind bars by being a model prisoner and joining a gospel-singing group. His ten-year sentence was cut short after only a few years and was released on his twenty-first birthday in 1947. Even though he had become a talented singer, he had to put performing on hold while he looked for steady work after getting out of jail. The music career was pushed further back after he got married one year later. The newlywed migrated between jobs as auto assembly plant worker, photographer, and even went through training to be a hairdresser.
His musical career finally got back on track on New Year’s Eve in 1952 when he joined the Sir John’s Trio. Soon after that first gig, Chuck hooked up with music producer Leonard Chess, who produced the song that became known as “Maybellene.” That record landed on the desk of world-famous disc jockey Alan Freed, who put the song into heavy rotation and put Berry on the road to stardom. Freed played the song for two straight hours during his show in New York City, which sent the album to No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart and No. 5 on the Hot 100.
SHOW ME SUCCESS
Berry’s next few songs didn’t bring the type of success he had achieved with “Maybellene,” which frustrated the performer. “Roll Over Beethoven” did reach the Top 30 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, but his other singles failed to garner any attention. That was until the release of “School Days” in 1957.
Like “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Days” drew on a universal adolescent theme and climbed all the way to No. 5 on the Hot 100. With only one exception, Berry enjoyed an unbroken string of ten chart hits for the next two-and-a-half years. His musical success translated into movie appearances, including Rock, Rock, Rock; Mr. Rock and Roll; and Go, Johnny, Go.
His legal problems cropped up once again in 1959 when he brought a 14-year-old waitress he met in Mexico back to the United States to work as a hatcheck girl at his nightclub in St. Louis. Berry and the young girl were both arrested on
prostitution charges, which sent him back to prison for five years. He was released in 1963, but his best years in the music business were now behind him.
Despite all the legal trouble, he remains a true American and Missouri musical legend. He was the first person inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He recorded more than thirty Top
10 hits, putting him in the history books as one of the most successful entertainers in history.
*Other Sumner High School alumni include Tina Turner, Arthur Ashe, Robert Guillaume, Robert McFerrin, and Dick Gregory.
*“Johnny B. Goode” is on a copper record that was launched on the Voyager Space Probe to let the universe know about the best of our culture.
*His first group consisted of superstar Johnnie Johnson, the namesake for the hit “Johnny B. Goode.”
Famous People From Missouri
Famous Singers From Missouri