Chuck Berry


On October 18, 1926, Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in St. Louis Missouri. His father, Henry Berry, was a deacon at the Antioch Baptist chuch where Charles Berry was firts exposed to music. He sang in the Church choir at the age of six and started learning guitar as teenager, taught by the local jazz legend Ira Harris. After going to jail for three years for robbery, Charles Berry did not pick up a guitar again until 1951 (Kemp). He joined a former classmate's band before becoming a part of the St. John's trio in 1952. In 1955, he met blues musician Muddy Waters, who encourage him to take look for a record contract at Chess Records. Berry recorded the song "Maybellene" which got him immediately signed (Kemp). "Maybellene" quickly became number one on the R&B charts and is referred to by many historians as the first true rock and roll song.

Berry's music started to become popuar among white teenagers through mixing R&B sounds with lyrics that carried universal themes of youth. His songs "Roll Over, Beethoven" and "Brown-Eyed Handosme Man" contributed to this new genre of music. He reached the top 10 of the pop charts with his songs "Sweet Little Sixteen", "Carol", and "Johnny B. Good". His succes across demographics, genres, and the nation is what gifted him the title "Father of Rock N Roll."

"I made records for people who would buy them. No color, no ethnic, no political—I don't want that, never did.''

- Chuck berry 

Chuck Berry was one of the most significant early rock and roll artists, contributing to the growth and evolution of rock and roll music. He was the first African-American rock and roll artist to acquire a national hit. However, while Chuck Berry was the trailblazer of rock and roll, creating hits from early on, white rock and roll artists such as Elvis Presley and Bill Haley scored the first national rock and roll hits. In 1958, Chuck Berry’s hit “Sweet Little Sixteen” rose to number two, but he did not hit number one until 1972 with “My Ding A Ling.” Thus, while African-American artists such as Chuck Berry establish the path for rock and roll, they are not recognized until white artists popularized the genre.

The Beach Boys performing "Surfin USA" on live television in 1964. This song's musical resemblance to Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" is uncanny and even sparked a lawsuit.

Chuck Berry performing "Sweet Little Sixteen" on the Saturday Night Beach Nutt show in 1958. 

Chuck Berry vs. The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys released their song "Surfin' USA". The lyrics were written by Beach Boy Brian Wilson, but were set to the music originally composed by Chuck Berry for his song, "Sweet Little Sixteen." It peaked on many charts, awarding it the title of number two song of 1963 by Billboard. This title track of theri new album would later become the embodiment of the Californian sound (Runtaugh). It also was listed on Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll. Wilson said he intended the song to be atribute to Berry, but, because he included no royalties or credits, Berry sued the band for plagiarism. Wilson and his members agreed to give credits to Berry's publisher, but Chuck Berry's name did not appear in the credits until 1966 (Runtaugh). If The Beach boys wanted to honor Berry, why not mention his name on the track and album? Why did it take a egal court for The BeachBoys to give over the credit? At the height of the Civil Rights movement, The Beach Boys did not want to give over their success and fame to an older, black artisit that came years before them. Although Chuck Berry won the lawsuit in what would become the first plagiarism battles in rock history, the credit for the song came to late and no one seemed to care who truly wrote it because that stolen melody became a Beach Boys staple.  

Why is Chuck Berry Important?

While the orgins of Rock n Roll are not an easy linear history, we do know that Chuck Berry's contribution to the music was one that would change the genre forever. The rock n roll style was beginning to originate before Berry was born, but it was ihs writing that really laid the foundaiton for the genre. Elvis Presley covered a numerous amount of Berry songs, giving him his own rise to fame. Everything about the history of rock traces back to Chuck Berry. The Beatles were insppired by Elvis and Elvis covered Berry's songs. He has been rightfully deemed as the "Father of Rock N Roll" because he was te only one wou could write a substantial amount of his won material (Wyman). Some argue that he did not invent rock n roll, but the idea of rock n roll. The idea that these uptempo songs featuring instrumental flaunt could tell real stories that people could identify with for years to come. 

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”

- John Lennon