There have been so musicians whohave left their marks on American music. All of these musicians have their ownbackground and stories, some more unique than others. Chuck Berry, consideredby some as “the father of Rock & Roll” has an especially unique story. Unlikemany other famous musicians who came from extremely poor families, Berry, bornin St. Louis, Missouri, was fortunate enough to be born into a middle-classAfrican American family. His mother, Martha, was one of the only AfricanAmerican women at the time to have a college education and Chuck himself wasable to attend the first private all-black high school in the area. Berry’sRock & Roll was different than other forms of music in that it really onlytook off in St.
Louis whereas others forms of music, such as Swing, took off inseveral cities. Berrywas exposed to music early in his life. As a young boy, he would listento his parents perform in the church choir. He even had a piano in his home. At6 years old he joined the church choir himself, but it wasn’t until high schoolthat he really began to realize his musical talents.
At the school talent show,his performance received enormous applause. As his interest in music grew, hestarted to take guitar lessons with Ira Harris, a famous jazz musician. Thingstook an unexpected turn though in the middle of high school as Berry wasarrested for armed robbery and was sentenced to 10 years in jail. Surprisingly,this terrible incident only came to help further help his career. In jail, heformed a singing group that became so good that they were allowed to performoutside the detention facility. After Berry was released from jail,a former classmate of his invited him to join his band. Playing at nightclubs,Berry quickly became a hit. Berry was able to break through with Rock &Roll, a form of music that helped break down some of the racial barriers inAmerica.
Besidesfor the influences in his home, Berry also drew influences from many otherareas such as Swing Era greats Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. At a timewhen American music only boasted three categories, Berry, “The St. Louisnative, internalized country, blues and R&B influences to create a singularguitar technique. His first big hit, “Maybellene” sounded likenothing else in music at the time, and immediately placed Berry as the founderof new music style, where blues, country and R&B came together in urgent.” 1 Justlike the Swing Era paved the way for the racial barriers to come down in the1940’s, Berry’s music did the same in the 1950’s. He knew what each race wantedto hear.
“The charismatic Berry came intohis own with this combo—especially after he started incorporating more countryriffs into his already eclectic performance style, a move which helped thetroupe attract an increasingly integrated audience.” 2 This unique ability to play music thatwas desired by both whites and blacks is what made him one of the most popularin the area. Other major influences on Berry wereT-Bone Walker and Berry’s idol, Muddy Waters. Berry learned Walker’s style ofplaying the electric guitar and just made it into a different beat. “From the Texasguitarist T-Bone Walker,Mr.
Berry picked up a technique of bending two strings at once that he wouldrough up and turn into a rock ‘n’ roll talisman.” 3Berrysaid, “All the things people see me do on the stage I got from T-BoneWalker.” 4With the help of Muddy Waters, Berry was able to reach the next level. He putBerry in touch with Chess Records, who recognized Berry’s potential, signed himand produced the song Maybellene which sold more than a million copies.
ChuckBerry was also a major influence on others. The rise of Rock & Roll musicwas quickly embraced by his culture. His music was especially influential onteenagers as he wasn’t just a singer, but to them he was also an entertainer.
His songs focused on the lives of teenagers. That ultimately helped spark achange in how teenage kids spent their time. Before Berry’s music becamepopular, most teenagers in America were getting jobs to support their family,but after the war when economic times were much better, teens had a lot morefree time. What made Berry’s music so popular amongst teenagers was that he wasable to connect to them.
He connected to them through his similarities in his upbringingwhich was very similar to that of his fans. “Berry was a city kid from St.Louis, not rooted in the rural past as were the country blues artists atChess.” 5 Berry’s arrest at the ageof 17 kept the teenager inside Berry even in the years following his releasewhich allowed him to write music that would connect with a younger crowd. Hefelt that his years as a teenager were taken from him when he was in jail so here-lived those years through his music. This really helped him connect with amuch younger audience. Inthe 1950’s, Berry’s influence helped spark Jonnie Johnson’s band, byintroducing country styles to what was mainly a jazz band. More famously,members of the Beatles paid homage to Berry and pointed to him as a majorinfluencer on their music.
In fact, some of their songs, such as “Back in theU.S.S.R” were offshoots of Berry’s songs. The co-founders of the Beatles, JohnLennon and Paul McCartney both attributed a lot of their work to Berry.
Lennonsaid, “If you tried to give Rock &Roll another name, you might call it “Chuck Berry.” 6 Paul McCartney admitted to”using the same bass lines from one of Berry’s songs and called Berry one ofthe greatest poets America has ever produced.” 7″But if Berry took liberally andwisely from the musical traditions of different American cultures, he also paidit forward by bringing his astounding new sound across the Atlantic.” 8 Berry’s influence spread not justin America, but to other countries as well. It wasn’t just Berry’s instrumentstyles that were imitated, but later musicians such as Prince, Keith Richardsand Michael Jackson also mimicked his on-stage dances moves such as his famous”duck-walk.” Berry’sinfluence wasn’t only on musicians. His personal life influenced a lot ofpeople as well.
Berry was considered a civil rights icon as he broke downsocial barriers and was referred to as “the first black artist to become aspopular with white audiences as black audiences” at Congressman William Clay’sfuneral. Also, Berry’s early struggles such as his multiple times in jailinfluenced people that they should also fight through the troubles and nevergive up. Berry’s second trip to jail seemed like it was going to put an end tohis legal troubles. At a time when Jim Crow laws and segregation were all overthe country and whites were trying to send a message to Berry that blacks werenot going to be influential in America, he never quit. Even again in 1976 whenBerry was jailed a third time, he still returned to the music scene. He neverstopped performing and was successful in playing on tour until he hit his 80’s. ChuckBerry is a major influence on American music.
His trail blazing efforts helpedbring down racial barriers even at a time when segregation had a majorinfluence on the country. Heis considered to be the founder of Rock & Roll and continues to haveinfluence on modern Rock & Roll as “Hepaved the way for such music legends as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Band, JimiHendrix, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, AC/DC, SexPistols and Jerry Lee Lewis, among many others.” 9 He became so popular thathe performed at the White House for President Jimmy Carter. His majoraccomplishments include being named to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame andbeing listed at No. 6 on RollingStone’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists ofAll Time.
” He is also famous for his trademarked stage dance called the “duckwalk.” Even late in his life, musicians were still obsessing over Berry. “At Berry’s 80th birthday show,Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry showed up and hopped onstage to jam with hisidol. It’s a testament to Berry’s influence—and the respect he hascommanded—that one of his most famous disciples made it a point to commemoratethe milestone.”10 Although Chuck Berry died a coupleof months ago, he continues to have a major influence on American music.Without Berry, we may have never had the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or manyothers famous musicians. Thanks to Chuck Berry and his creation of Rock &Roll, America and the rest of the world was given another incredible style ofmusic to enjoy.
1 https://www.rockhall.com/inductees/chuck-berry2 https://www.rockhall.com/inductees/chuck-berry3 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/18/arts/chuck-berry-dead.html4 www.telegraph.co.uk/music/artists/t-bone-walker-blues-giant-and-musical-innovator/5 www.plosin.com/beatbegins/projects/gallant-gardner.html 6 www.cnn.com/2017/03/18/entertainment/chuck-berry-reactions-social…/index.html7 www.desertsun.com/story/life/entertainment/music/2016/…berry…/91928954/8 thefederalist.com/2017/03/21/chuck-berry-taught-us-cultural-appropriation/ 9 https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/7728700/chuck-berry-dead10 http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/aerosmith-guitarist-performs-at-chuck-berry-s-80th-birthday-celebration/