13 Black Artists that Inspired Rock: Chuck Berry
Born on October 18, 1926, son of a deacon father and a school-teacher mother, Chuck Berry grew up in a hard-working middle-class household. His mother, a skilled piano player, passes on her love of music to her son, but soon he moves away from her baptist hymns and develops a passion for blues, jazz and the harmonies of country music.
However, in 1944, his life changes. Berry has his first of several run-ins with the law. Along with a couple of friends, Berry commits a series of armed robberies and steals a car at gunpoint. While incarcerated in a juvenile detention facility he decides to take his music seriously. In 1947, he was released and began taking guitar lessons from his friend Ira Harris. He finds inspiration from guitarists like T-Bone Walker and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, borrowing their riffs to create his playing style. It is on stage in the early fifties with the Johnnie Johnson Trio that he begins to develop his showmanship. His flamboyant performance style included flirting with the female audience and guitar playing while doing his iconic duck walk across the stage.
He traveled to Chicago in 1955 and, as fortune would have it, he meets Muddy Waters. Waters introduced him to Leonard Chess, the head of Chess Records. The label is known for producing music by black artists that other labels tend to ignore. Chess is looking for something different than the Rhythm and Blues that were starting to lose popularity. Chuck auditions with rhythm and blues numbers, but it was “Maybelline” that got the attention of Chess. “Maybelline” was a play off of the country song “Ida Red” by Bob Willis. Berry’s version was something different than either rhythm and blues or country.
He knew Berry’s sound was the answer. Chess Records is where he records his biggest hits. In total, he released seven top thirty mainstream chart hits and twelve top twenty hits on the rhythm and blues charts while at Chess. The good times didn’t last. In 1962 Berry had another run-in with the law. They charge Berry with two counts of violating the federal statute, the Mann Act (White Slave Traffic Act). They claim he drove a young woman in her late teens and a fourteen-year-old minor across state lines for immoral purposes. The jury found him innocent for the young woman since it was two consenting adults. However, he was found guilty for the minor. He spends the next year in prison.
Berry is released, but music has started to change. His songs began to sound out-dated. He manages three more top twenty songs that year, but his commercial success soon fades. The exception is the 1972 tongue-and-cheek release of “My Ding-A-Ling.” which reaches number one as a final note.
Influence of Chuck Berry on Other Artists
Although he stopped charting, Chuck Berry’s music continues as the inspiration behind so many guitar legends and performers. His showmanship created the flamboyant performance style of the rock guitarist. His music helped move from rhythm and blues to rock and roll. He was the first to write songs like “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music,” “School Day,” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” that were relevant to a young emerging teen audience. Legends such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix have recorded his songs. His importance to the birth of rock and roll was confirmed with an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.”
-John Lennon 
“You [Chuck Berry] are most certainly the inspiration for all of today’s rock ‘n’ roll guitarists. Your music is timeless.”
-Motown Legend Smokey Robinson 
“Chuck Berry is a musical scientist who discovered a cure for the blues.”
-Singer Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers 
“[Chuck Berry] The epitome of what it is to be a rock ‘n’ roll guitar player, songwriter and singer.”
-Joan Jett 
Did You Know?
- Berry enjoyed playing country music to a predominantly black audience. According to Berry, “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?” After they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed dancing to it.”
- The melody of The Beach Boys’ classic ‘Surfin’ USA’ is almost identical to the melody of Chuck’s 1958 classic ‘Sweet Little Sixteen.’ They sounded so alike that The Beach Boys gave Berry co-writing credit to avoid a lawsuit.
- In 1972, Berry told Rolling Stone that his anthemic “Johnnie B. Goode” originally had a line saying “that little-colored boy could play” but he changed it to “country boy” to get it on the radio. The song was partly autobiographical.
- An 8-foot bronze statue of Berry was unveiled near St. Louis in 2011, despite protests that it was inappropriate because of Berry’s criminal record.
- Chuck Berry’s only number one hit on the mainstream chart was “My Ding-A-Ling.”
- Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in the film Back to the Future imitates Berry’s duck walk while performing on stage.