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20 People Who Changed Black Music: Chuck Berry, the Blues Man-Turned-Rock Architect

His image is that of one of rock & roll's original bad boys, but serious music aficionados know that blues, rock, R&B and even rockabilly wouldn't be where they are today if there had been no Chuck Berry.

The late rocker and archivist Cub Koda once wrote for the All Music Guide that "Quite simply, without him, there would be no Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, nor a myriad others. There would be no standard 'Chuck Berry guitar intro,' the instrument's clarion call to get the joint rockin' in any setting. The clippety-clop rhythms of rockabilly would not have been mainstreamed into the now standard 4/4 rock & roll beat. There would be no obsessive wordplay by modern-day tunesmiths; in fact, the whole history (and artistic level) of rock & roll songwriting would have been much poorer without him. ... Those who do not claim him as a seminal influence or profess a liking for his music and showmanship show their ignorance of rock's development, as well as his place as the music's first great creator. Elvis may have fueled rock & roll's imagery, but Chuck Berry was its heartbeat and original mindset."

Berry was about a whole lot more than simple ditties about girls, schools, cars and his famous "duck walk."

During the 1950s, his showmanship packed in the crowds at black clubs and created a sound that crossed over to white rock & roll and country audiences, according to a number of biographies about Berry.

Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in 1926 in St. Louis to a schoolteacher, Martha, and contractor and church deacon Henry Berry. The third of six children, Berry grew up in 'The Ville,' an area near downtown St. Louis, which was one of the few areas of town where black people could own property.

Berry started singing in the choir at Antioch Baptist Church at the age of six and learned to play guitar in Sumner High School. He first learned to play on a four-string tenor guitar, but by 1950, he had switched to a six-string electric. He also discovered a love of photography, which he pursued briefly as a young adult.

His first public performance was in the All Men's Review in 1941, in which he sang "Confessin' the Blues," a song he would record 19 years later.

The '40s was also a time when Berry had his first brush with the law. Just before graduating from high school, he was joy riding with a couple of friends in Kansas City when the police stopped and arrested the trio. His friends were wanted for armed robbery. All three were sentenced to 10 years in Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa. There, Berry took up boxing and joined a gospel group. He was released on Oct. 18, 1947. His 21st birthday.

The next year, Berry married and took on a number of jobs, including working as a freelance photographer, and continued to play the guitar and developing a reputation around St. Louis. He began playing professionally in 1952, picking up gigs at various clubs. By year's end, he joined the Sir John Trio, which played at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis, and was heavily influenced by leader Johnnie Johnson's boogie-woogie piano riffs. The Sir John Trio played mostly blues and ballads, but Berry began working some joking hillbilly songs into the act.

"Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of our country stuff on our predominantly black audience, and some of our black audience began whispering, 'Who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo?'" Berry wrote in his book, "Chuck Berry: The Autobiography." "After they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed dancing to it."

Whites in the area heard about Berry's music and started coming to the shows as well.

In 1955, a meeting with legendary bluesman Muddy Waters led to an introduction to Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Berry auditioned and was surprised when Chess was more interested in his rendition of hillbilly tune "Ida Red" than in Berry's blues renditions.

Berry recorded the song - renamed "Maybellene," in a nod to the cosmetic line Maybelline - and it reached No. 1 on the R&B charts.

A string of hits followed, including "Roll Over Beethoven," "School Day," "Memphis Tennessee," "Johnny B. Goode" and "Rock and Roll Music."

In 1958, Berry opened a nightclub called Club Bandstand that catered to racially mixed audiences. According to Koda's bio of Berry, an underage hat-check girl Berry hired began freelancing as a prostitute at a nearby hotel. Berry was charged with violating the Mann Act by transporting a minor over state lines and was tried twice before being convicted and sent to federal prison for two years.

While he was in prison, British teenagers became familiar with Berry's music, and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones covered some of his hits. Their popularity, interestingly enough, exposed a wider audience to Berry's music. When he emerged from prison, Berry found popularity touring in Britain and on the festival circuit.

Still, some would argue, Berry has never enjoyed the kind of success he truly deserved, considering his impact on the music scene.

Like fellow pioneer Little Richard, Berry "never really got beyond the large shadow Elvis Presley cast," said Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black pop culture at Duke University. "They haven't gotten their due for the innovations that they made.

"In Chuck Berry's case," Neal said, "it's because it's always been the other stuff, in terms of his everyday life." He said that while those experiences may have provided some healing for Berry and informed his music, "it doesn't help the people hearing the music."

And while Berry continued to enjoy the popularity among the more nostalgic music fans of the early years of rock and roll, "he never made the transition in the way that other artists from the era made those transitions, like Ray Charles," Neal said.

Berry's last hit was his ribald version of the nursery rhyme, "My Ding a Ling," which went gold in 1972. He was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards in 1985 and was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. A year later, he was inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Along with the accolades, however, there continued to be troubles. In 1979, Berry played at the White House for President Jimmy Carter. Later that year, he went to prison for tax evasion. In 1993, he performed at President Bill Clinton's inauguration. In 2001, Johnnie Johnson sued Berry, seeking royalties on songs that Johnson said he co-authored with Berry but never got credit for during the 30 years he played for Berry's band.

Still, Berry's place in history is secure.

"While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together," according to the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Web site. "To this day, the cream of Berry's repertoire - which includes 'Johnny B. Goode,' 'Sweet Little Sixteen,' 'Rock and Roll Music' and 'Roll Over Beethoven' - is required listening for any serious rock fan and required learning for any serious rock musician."

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