Let It Rock : Chuck Berry (Part One)©2008JCMarion


Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in October of 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri, and lived in a Black section of that city known as "the Ville", an insulated and segregated community. His mother was a school teacher and his father worked in construction and was also a deacon at Antioch Baptist Church in the neighborhood. His first try at music was at a school talent show where he was well received. His progression further had to wait as Berry encountered the first of a number of brushes with the law. He was arrested and charged with armed robbery and was found guilty and sentenced to a ten year term in a Missouri Reformatory. He was released however after serving three years and in his early twenties studied to be a hairdresser while working at a number of jobs in and around St. Louis. By the time he was in mid twenties, he had been married for a few years and in his spare time worked on his budding music career

He began to perfect his guitar playing influenced by the top performers in the R & B field, but also the style he heard on the "Grand Ol Opry" radio program. His first musical gigs were with a combo led by former classmate Tommy Stevens. In late 1952 he was asked to join a local group called the Sir John Trio which featured pianist Johnnie Johnson (who would be a big part of his later successes) and drummer Ebby Hardy. Chuck soon became the focal point of the band and they attracted a devoted following that made the trio a top draw among local musicians. They played many times in some of the bars and clubs in East St. Louis, Illinois. It was at this time that Chuck recorded for the first time with a local label called Ballad Records, backing up a local singer named Joe Alexander. Chuck was trying to bring attention to a song he recently wrote called "Ida Red"when he crossed paths with blues great Muddy Waters. Muddy told the untested Berry to see Leonard Chess in Chicago for whom Muddy was recording for. Berry got an impromptu audition for his song and Willie Dixon A & R chief for the Chess label was impressed. Soon a recording session was arranged, and the trio with Dixon on bass recorded the song now named "Maybelline" on Chess # 1604. The flip side was a slow blues tune called "In The Wee Wee Hours". However as Berry saw the label for the first time he saw two strange names as co-writers - Freed and Fratto. Freed was the "Moondog" - Alan Freed, who by then was in New York City and the most important radio dj for Black R & B artists. It seemed he took his share of the publishing rights as payment for pushing the record for Chess. The Fratto, was Russell Fratto who did business with Chess and was also a landlord of some of the Chess Records property. There is a lingering controversy about whether Berry knowingly was part of this arrangement or not. But the fact remains that Chuck Berry was now learning the facts of life for a Black musical performer in the nineteen fifties.

Legend has it that "Maybelline" took more than thirty takes until Leonard Chess was satisfied with the result. The sound was an interesting mix of R & B and country music. The mix was a reversal of what Bill Haley had discovered four years before when from a country music perspective he infused his style with that of R & B music of the time. Berry's guitar style on the record was an amplified chunky blast of chords mixed with a clipped note solo in the middle. It was a far cry from Muddy Waters or even Les Paul. The record was an immediate hot seller in all markets and Freed quickly got Berry to sign up for his second extended show to take place during Labor Day week at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. The record eventually became a million seller and topped out at number five on the pop charts. In August the Chuck Berry Trio plays some of the top R & B spots in the country such as Gleason's in Cleveland, the Copa Casino in Youngstown, Ohio, and the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, before heading to the Brooklyn Paramount. "Maybelline" has become a top R & B seller as well as making inroads in the pop market. Cover versions have shown up without much success including those by Jim Lowe for Dot, Marty Robbins for Columbia, and Johnny Long for Coral. Right after the Brooklyn Paramount show,Berry will head to Nashville to appear in an all star show presented by Bill "Hoss" Allen of WLAC in that city. The show will headline Buddy Johnson and his band with Ella Johnson. Also appearing will be Arthur Prysock, Al Savage, The Four Fellows, Nutmegs, and Bull Moose Jackson. In September Chuck Berry is awarded the "triple crown" of R & B charts - retail sales, juke box plays, and radio dj spins. This is quite an accomplishment for a first time record artist. The Labor Day week show with Alan Freed sets all time attendance records as Berry is a particular crowd favorite. "Maybelline" remains the number one R & B record and breaks into the top ten on the pop charts. Big John Greer and Mercy Dee (Walton) record "answer records to "Maybelline". Leonard Chess remarks that "Maybelline" will become the biggest seller in the label's history, outdoing Willie Mabon's "I Don't Know". In October Chuck Berry's follow up is released by Chess - "Thirty Days" and "Together We Will Always Be" on # 1610. The 'A' side "Thirty Days" is another uptempo tune with strong country overtones, a sure fire successor to "Maybelline". The song contained clever lyrics and a sure fire country styled solo by Berry. The record breaks into the pop market right away as Berry has become a trend setting R & B performer. One of the kings of country music jumps in on the cover record trend as Ernest Tubb records a version of "Thirty Days" for Decca Records. In late November Berry appears at Chicago's Regal Theater. At year's end Chuck wins the award from Cashbox as the most promising R & B male vocalist. He appears in Detroit for Robin Seymour in that city's biggest rock 'n roll show ever, along with The Turbans, Moonglows, Bobby Charles, and others. With Willie Dixon on bass, Johnny Johnson on piano, and Fred Below on drums, this tight little trio makes music history for Chess Records.

Chuck Berry starts out in 1956 by making a West Coast swing opening with a date at the Los Angeles Savoy Ballroom. In January Chess releases # 1615 featuring the songs "Downbound Train" and "No Money Down". It is reported that some radio stations refuse to play "No Money Down" because of its lyrical references to actual makes of automobiles. Once again Berry shows his mastery of the up tempo lyric song by projecting his thoughts on a desirable car that has been part of so many teenage dreams. In May Chess released # 1626 with "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Drifting Heart". The 'A' side - "Beethoven" - was a true classic documenting the rise of R & B music that would in a very short order take over the hearts and minds of music lovers everywhere. It was a snapshot in time for the ears that adeptly captured what is was like in 1956. The message resonated with young America, and another top seller was launched. It became Chuck's second million seller and made the top thirty pop sellers list. That same month Berry appeared with Little Walter, and The El Dorados at the Colonial Theater in Milwaukee. With a July start up date, Berry signs on with a traveling show produced by Irving Feld. Among the performers are Carl Perkins, Al Hibbler, The Teenagers, Spaniels, Shirley & Lee, Bobby Charles, and others. In late July the drawing power of the music is apparent as as the big show with Chuck Berry plays at Carr's Beach in Annapolis, Maryland. The show sold out with more than ten thousand, plus an overflow of an estimated sixty thousand people that backed up local roads for more than five miles. From Maryland the show called "Top Record Stars of 1956" goes up North to a few dates in Canada. In August Chess Records announces that Chuck Berry will appear in an Alan Freed film to be shot in New York. In September "Too Much Monkey Business" and "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" was issued by Chess Records on # 1635. Once again, in "Monkey Business" Berry excels in capturing teenage angst with insight and humor. "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" in many ways was much more. Behind the lyrical references to hero worship and deeds of wonder, many felt the somewhat hidden language tells of the tribulations of second class citizenship imposed upon so many. An early December date is set for the Alan Freed motion picture titled "Rock Rock Rock" which features Chuck Berry and two other Chess artists The Moonglows and Flamingos. Chess Records announces plans to release an LP of songs by their artists in the film plus some previous hits by them. The "Top Record Stars" show hits Denver and is a sellout despite a mini-blizzard. "Rock Rock Rock" the film opens on December 5th at Loew's Victoria Theater in New York with Alan Freed and Chuck Berry in person. Chess readies the LP from the movie and also releases Berry's new single "You Can't Catch Me" (from the film) and "Havana Moon" on # 1646. "You Can't Catch Me" is a throwback to "Maybelline" in many ways from the tempo to the car song subject. Johnnie Johnson's piano work is a perfect compliment to Berry's singing and guitar work.

In January of 1957 Chuck Berry signs on with another Irving Feld traveling road show. This one is called "Greatest Show Of 1957" and will kick off in mid February in Pittsburgh. Others on the bill are LaVern Baker, Bill Doggett, Clyde McPhatter, Fats Domino, The Five Keys, Five Satins, Moonglows, Schoolboys, Ann Cole, Charles Brown, Eddie Cooley & The Dimples, and the Paul Williams band. That month Chess Records announces that it will release an LP album by Chuck Berry. In March "Schoolday" and "Deep Feeling" was released on Chess # 1653. The new record is an immediate blockbuster selling in all parts of the country. Once again Berry captures with witty lyrics the ordeal of school for a typical teenager in the mid fifties. The jump stop tempo used to great effect makes the tune a super dance record. By late April the record is the biggest seller in the history of Chess-Checker Records, and earns Berry a third gold record for sales in excess of one million. The record remains on the pop charts for an incredible four months and reaches number three in the country's popular best sellers. In May plans are announced for another Alan Freed movie, but this time noted producer Dino Delaurentis will be in charge. Chuck Berry is announced as one of the performers in the cast. Late in the month Chess releases an LP called "After School Session" as a tie in to his hit single. Berry is signed for a July appearance with LaVern Baker at Atlantic City's Club Bolero. Chuck once again signs on to an Irving Feld extravaganza. This one to be called "The Biggest Show Of Stars" will kick off in mid September in Pittsburgh. This monster show includes LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, The Clovers, Drifters, Fats Domino, Everly Brothers, Paul Anka, Buddy Holly & The Crickets, Frankie Lymon, The Bobbettes, and Johnnie & Joe on the bill. In July "Oh Baby Doll" and Lajuanda" on # 1664 is issued by Chess. It is the first time in many months that a Chuck Berry record does not capture the attention of the vast record buying public. In late September Paramount Pictures readies "Mr. Rock and Roll" the new Alan Freed movie featuring Chuck Berry, Little Richard, LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, and others. In October Chess releases its latest Chuck Berry record - "Rock 'n Roll Music" and "Blue Feeling" on # 1671. "Rock 'n Roll Music" is another Berry classic this time delineating the love for the music that is sweeping the nation. Once again Berry captures the time and the place forever in his music, and with it a fourth gold record. "Music" is a top ten seller on the national pop charts.

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