The Kennedy Center

Chuck Berry


Charles "Chuck" Edward Anderson Berry

October 18, 1926 - March 18, 2017

As a singer, songwriter, and guitarist, Chuck Berry has been one of the most influential artists in the history of rock music. From the world of rhythm-and-blues, the rock-and-roll sound was born, and Berry was its “founding father, the first important rocker to write, play, and sing his own songs (The Washington Post).” He blended the various styles of the different music he heard growing up-boogie-woogie, country, swing, big band, pop, and blues-and created the sound that has dominated popular music for five decades. He was one of rock’s first great lyricists and is known as the poet laureate of rock-and-roll. Many of his signature guitar riffs have become the alphabet of rock composition. Some of the most influential musicians of the last 40 years-from The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen and The Beatles-claim to have cut their artistic teeth on Berry’s music. “If you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name,” John Lennon once said, “you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.”

Berry’s first exposure to music was through his parents’ participation in their Baptist church and the family radio. As he grew older he worked in a car assembly plant and studied hairdressing and cosmetology, but all the while he was learning to play the guitar and performing in St. Louis clubs. In 1952, he played with a combo called Sir John’s Trio and his blend of blues and country music eventually turned the group, renamed the Chuck Berry Trio, into a prototype for most of the rock bands that would follow. In 1955, he traveled to Chicago in search of a recording contract, and his first recording session for the Chess label produced “Maybellene.” The influential disc jockey Alan Freed aired the single for two hours straight one night and the song stayed on the pop charts for 11 weeks, sold more than a million copies, and reached the top spot on Billboard’s R&B chart and No. 5 on the Hot 100. Many more hits followed, most notably “Back in the USA,” “No Money Down,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Let It Rock,” “School Days,” “Little Queenie,” “Memphis,” “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Carol,” and “Almost Grown.”

These songs spoke directly to a group of people who had been, up until then, pretty much ignored by popular culture-the American teenager. Suddenly, they heard lyrics that gave poetry to their ambitions and obsessions; music that gave their rebellion a beat.

Berry’s success on the charts was accompanied by a number of appearances in movies aimed directly at the teenage market (Rock, Rock, Rock; Mr. Rock and Roll; The T.A.M.I. Show, and Go Johnny, Go), as well as Jazz on a Summer Day, filmed live at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which captured on film Berry’s now famous “duckwalk.” This film introduced him to a whole new group of people who would not have been caught dead listening to that noise the kids were crazy about. Most important to his commercial success, his music demolished the color barrier, which had been an insurmountable obstacle to many of his predecessors.

Berry’s career has been remarkably enduring. In fact, his biggest-selling recording and his only No. 1 hit, “My Ding-a-ling,” dates from 1972, a full two decades after his initial successes. In 1984, he was presented with a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement, and three years later he was among the first artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The 1987 publication of Chuck Berry: The Autobiography and the release of the documentary film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, featuring footage from his 60th birthday concert, have introduced this rock icon to a whole new generation of music fans.

Chuck Berry’s legendary recording of “Johnny B. Goode” is the only rock song included in a “Sounds of Earth” gold record aboard the spacecraft Voyagers I and II, now en route from Uranus to Neptune. “If an intelligent life form out there finds the record,” said a spokesman for the Jet Propulsion Lab, “‘Johnny B. Goode’ will be rock and roll’s representative to the universe.” A fitting tribute to the man who introduced rock and roll to the world.
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