Charles Edward Anderson "Chuck" Berry is an American guitarist, singer and songwriter and is one of the pioneers of rock and roll music.
By the time he was attending Sumner High School in the early ‘40s, he was performing in public with his own R&B combo. His professional development would be put on hiatus starting in 1944 as he served a three-year prison sentence for armed robbery. This would be Berry’s first major encounter in a life filled with legal scrapes and less-than-savory behavior.
On the bright side, his time in prison gave him a chance to focus on his singing. So excellent was the vocal quartet he fronted that they even booked a few gigs outside the prison walls. This was not exactly his big break, though. That wouldn’t come until 1955, when he signed with Chess Records.
With “Maybellene,” his very first single, Berry had a million-seller, an R&B #1, and a #5 on the mainstream charts. It was also the first in a string of crossover hits. In addition to his silver-tongued wordplay, incendiary fretwork, and flashy stage presence, Berry dealt in themes that were in perfect harmony with a surging youth culture. Songs about girls, cars, and school were omnipresent in his performances. Over the next five years, Berry released “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Johnny B. Goode.” This is basically the rock and roll equivalent of Prometheus gifting fire to humanity.
His influence may well have achieved an even greater reach beginning in the mid-‘60s, when a new crop of musicians on both sides of the Atlantic began knowingly and proudly stealing his licks. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys—arguably the three most consequential rock bands of their time—all explicitly declared their debt to Berry. His songs were an important keystone in each band’s early performing repertoire and his incisive lead-in riffs were unabashedly co-opted in their early (and massively successful) songwriting exploits. Even as rock entered its more experimental phase in the late ‘60s, Berry’s songbook remained a necessary building block for every aspiring guitarist.
In many ways, Berry’s important musical accomplishments were at an end by the early ‘60s—and yet any discussion of the idiom which dominated popular music through the next four decades absolutely must begin with Chuck Berry. Indeed, he was a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s inaugural class of inductees, making him Ty Cobb to Elvis Presley’s Babe Ruth.
Clancy's comment: They don't come much better than this guy. What a legend.