Sun | Sep 24, 2017

Chuck Berry - a pioneer in rock and roll

Published:Tuesday | March 21, 2017 | 3:41 AMRoy Black
Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry, who, along with Elvis Presley was considered Rock and Roll’s most exciting and illustrious pioneers, passed away on March 18 at his home in St Charles, Missouri. He was 90 years old.

Berry came to prominence with his self-penned, Maybellene in 1955. Because of the song’s country-influenced rhythm, many thought that Berry was white when they first heard him, and as a result, the song was given much airplay by white disc jocks, while the white record-buying public bought the record in abundance. But on the strength of the song’s quality, it sold well in the millions to both blacks and whites, and spent nine weeks at number one on the Billboard R&B chart.

It is interesting to note, that Berry’s contemporary – Elvis Presley, who is oftentimes compared to him, fooled many into thinking that he was black, when they first heard him on record.

Putting his guitar at the front of his recordings, Berry blazed a trail of unforgettable Rock ‘n’ Rollers that inspired a whole generation of Rock stars that included, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Peter Tosh, whose cover of Johnny B Good, became an enduring cut in Jamaica and abroad. Between 1955 and 1958, Berry’s remarkable run of Rock ‘n’ Roll hits, blossomed with Roll Over Beethoven, Sweet Little Sixteen, Little Queenie and Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, in which he expressed his preference for the genre:

“Just let me hear some of that Rock ‘n’ Roll music
Any old way you choose it
It’s got a back beat, you can't lose it
Any old time you use it
It’s gotta be Rock ‘n’ Roll music,
If you want to dance with me”.

In addition to his many hits, Berry, accompanied by his guitar and his innovative duck walk manoeuvres, mesmerised audiences across America for over half a decade. His career was, however, like a roller-coaster ride in which he had several run-ins with the law, which disrupted his career. Despite this, Berry exercised extreme resilience each time, upon his release, to rebound with quality hits, many of which were written while being incarcerated. Some of his later hits were No Particular Place To Go, Nadine, School Days and the bawdy My Ding A Ling -a Dave Bartholomew composition that was covered by Berry in 1972. It became a number one song in America, appearing on the U.S., Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Berry, who was credited with bringing the electric guitar to the forefront of popular music, was born Charles Edward Anderson Berry, on October 18, 1926 in San Jose California, and raised in a St Louis home. He first appeared in nightclubs and worked as a beautician by day. When Muddy Waters introduced him to Chess Records, his career took an upturn. All his early hits were done there. In 1986, Berry became one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Appearances in the movies Rock Rock Rock, Mister Rock and Roll and Go Johnny Go, capped off an exciting career for Berry.    

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