An absolute titan of the music industry, Chuck Berry’s contribution to contemporary sound is indisputable. With a road to stardom equally decorated by success and controversy, the father of rock forces each of us to ask ourselves whether we can separate the art from the artist.
Chuck Berry Facts
1. He Came From Humble Beginnings
No, he wasn’t born with a Gibson slung over his shoulder. In an almost fairytale fashion, Chuck Berry was born on October 18th, 1926, to an unassuming middle-class family.
Being the fourth of six children, Berry was no stranger to a sense of community. Their neighborhood in St Louis Missouri, however, was quite segregated in certain respects, specifically from a racial standpoint. This led to a bizarre moment.
2. He Had An Isolated Upbringing
Berry lived in such a segregated neighborhood that it took a fire for him to first see a white person. Being only three years old, Berry recalled thinking the firefighters’ faces were simply chalk white with fear at having to deal with such a roaring blaze, but his father explained things to him properly.
Despite his somewhat isolated youth, Berry found a sense of true belonging in one specific place.
3. Music Was Always A Part Of His Life
From the very beginning, music was present in Berry’s life. Berry’s father was a local church deacon, and his parents sang in the choir, an activity that synthesized music and spirituality. The choir familiarized him with music from an extremely young age, and he had joined the choir by the time he was six.
But Berry found the spotlight in a surprising place.
4. He Started Early
Chuck Berry received a brief taste of celebrity status during his High School talent show. His friend rocked on the guitar while Berry himself covered the vocals, and together they delivered a performance that the student body enjoyed immensely.
It’s doubtful though that anyone in the audience realized that they had witnessed a rock legend in the making (impossible in fact, as rock and roll didn't exist yet at the time). Berry certainly had the talent, but he had no clue what fate had in store for him.
5. His Friend Inspired Him
The guitarist that performed alongside Berry inspired him to learn the guitar himself. This was a pivotal moment for the aspiring musician, as both his vocals and instrumentation would one day become iconic. The school talent show was definitely a high point in his high school career, but the lowest was still to come.
6. He Didn’t Get Away With It
One day, Chuck Berry and his friends took their mischief too far. The group of boys went on a joyride in a stolen vehicle before sticking up several local businesses. Berry’s shenanigans proved to come at a high price—his freedom. The authorities were not happy, and despite being a minor, he ended up scoring a ten-year sentence. He would spend the next portion of his life at the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men. In spite of his rather bleak situation, Berry still managed to make the most of things behind bars.
7. He Had No Trouble Keeping Busy
Musically speaking, Berry didn’t skip a beat. In fact, he took it upon himself to form a musical quartet with some other convicts to sing for the reformatory’s church services. Their musical ensemble impressed everyone so much that they played at a handful of venues outside the confines of the prison.
After serving only three years of his sentence, they released Berry early on good behavior. It wasn’t long after tasting freedom that he started to turn his life around.
8. He Got Back On Track
After his release from the reformatory, Berry quickly established a new life for himself. In 1948, he married Themetta “Toddy” Suggs. They would be together to the very end. Soon after their marriage, they had their first child together. All of a sudden, Berry had a family of his own. But there was one problem plaguing his happiness.
He had to find a way to pay the bills. With the task at hand, Berry was able to quickly showcase his enterprising side.
9. He Wasn’t Always A Professional Musician
Stardom was still relatively far off for this working family man. Berry took on all kinds of jobs just to pay the bills. He labored as a factory worker, janitor, and beautician. After some hard work, Berry and his family were financially stable enough to purchase a lovely house, settling into their new home in 1950.
But a desire for more cash prompted Berry to indulge in his true calling.
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10. He Returned To Music
After somewhat of a hiatus from music, Chuck Berry got back into the local gig scene in St Louis. A show here and a gig there served as a source of reliable side income, but nothing more. Ah, such humble beginnings. Eventually, ambition kindled in the soon-to-be star’s heart, and he went in search of a record deal.
His destination: Chicago, the Windy City.
11. He finally Caught His Big Break
It was a recommendation from a friend that transformed Berry’s life forever. Muddy Waters advised Berry to contact Leonard Chess, the co-founder of Chess Records in Chicago. Berry did just that, and soon secured a deal with the label. Within the same month, Berry recorded his breakout track “Maybellene”.
He had finally gotten his foot in the door—but things were just getting started for the father of rock and roll.
12. He Enjoyed His First Hit
People went nuts for “Maybellene”. Believed by many music scholars to be the first rock and roll song, “Maybellene” was the catalyst that spurred decades of success for Berry. In case it wasn’t clear, the man was the furthest thing from a one-hit wonder.
Listeners were eager for more, and Berry was more than happy to oblige: the creative floodgates had opened, and it would be a while before they dried up.
13. He Had A Lot To Offer
To call Berry "prolific" would be a gross understatement. A slew of more singles was released in the wake of “Maybellene," many of which were finding their way onto the charts.
Hits included “Rock and Roll Music," "Johnny B Goode”, and “Sweet Little Sixteen”. With a cavalcade of instant classics, it came as no surprise that everyone wanted their piece of the money pie.
14. He Went To Court
Soon after the release of “Maybellene," Berry found himself back in the court of law, only this time he was the prosecutor. Much to his annoyance, Berry had noticed a couple of names claiming writing credit for his music, which would of course guarantee them a certain amount of royalties: royalties that Berry was unwilling to part with.
He took them to court and was able to reclaim full writing credit for “Maybellene” and all the respective royalties.
15. Other Stars Idolized Him
If music groups as popular as the Beatles are huge fans of your work, you know you’re doing something right. The late John Lennon once said, “if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'”.
Berry’s role as a muse for bands like the Beatles made for some great musical hits, but there was a time when they took a little too much inspiration from his music.
16. His Publisher Was Ruthless
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but there are times when it can definitely go too far. Berry’s publisher at the time (Big Seven Music) sued John Lennon over similarities between Berry’s song “You Can’t Catch Me” and the Beatles’ recently released song “Come Together”.
They were finally able to come to a resolution when Lennon agreed to record some music for Big Seven.
17. He Had His Own Club
By the late 50s, the rising star seemed unstoppable. He had attended and played at countless clubs, and eventually decided to open one of his very own, naming the flashy new venue Berry’s Club Bandstand. As a testament to his mass appeal, Berry opened the club in a predominantly white district.
The venue was indicative of his incredible success, but it also acted as the catalyst for one of the most disturbing points in Berry’s life.
18. He Faced The Music
Berry found himself in a world of trouble after hiring a new waitress for his club. As it happens, he'd made the mistake of mixing business with pleasure—and the young woman turned out to be a young girl who was only 14 years old.
Berry’s poor decisions ushered in his second sentence—five years behind bars. He ended up appealing the court’s decision and received a lower sentence of only three years. In the end, however, the star would only end up serving a measly one and a half years for his actions. But despite his good fortune, he would never be quite the same.
19. He Was A Changed Man
After serving his second prison sentence, close friends and coworkers noticed a dramatic shift in Chuck Berry's temperament. Carl Perkins described the new Berry as “distant and bitter”. But while the star wouldn’t quite reach the same heights of popularity as before, he was the furthest thing from unsuccessful.
20. He Became Number One
Despite his many personal low points, Berry’s career was far from flatlining. In fact, in many ways, he reached new heights. By 1972, his music had reached the top of the charts, with his live rendition of “My Ding-A-Ling” being the song to finally do the trick. The artist hadn’t lost his touch—musically, or otherwise. The 70s also marked a shift in focus for Berry.
21. He Hit The Road Hard
By the 70s, Berry was no stranger to touring, but this would be the decade that he would hit it hard. Trading time in the studio for more opportunities onstage, the mobile rock-n-roller had no trouble filling venues.
With nothing but well-earned confidence and his Gibson guitar, Berry attracted audiences to his shows not just for his music, but for the riotous energy he displayed on stage.
22. His Stage Presence Was Legendary
Chuck Berry’s live performances weren’t just about the music. He famously delivered incredibly entertaining shows due in large part to his stage presence. His explosive energy, paired with a respectable repertoire of signature dance moves like the “Duck Walk," ensured that audiences were rapt.
Yes, Berry could duck walk across the stage while delivering stellar riffs, but while touring, he also made some questionable choices.
23. He Made A Bizarre Request
During his heavy touring years of the 70s, Berry made a strange request to any venues that would have him: He demanded that they pay him in cash for his gigs, and you can bet he was making more than just spare change. So why did he do this? The answer is nefarious.
24. He Didn’t Like Taxes
Berry’s odd insistence that venues pay him in cash isn’t that odd at all if you think about it for a second. See, if they paid him in cash, then he wouldn’t necessarily have to report that income to the government. Only, well…cough, tax evasion, cough. This resulted in him always having large amounts of cash on hand—but it didn't end well.
25. He Got In Big Trouble
In the case of prospective prison time, the third time really isn’t the charm. Berry’s many cash-only dealings with music venues finally caught up to him in the form of one of the world’s scariest entities: the IRS. This resulted in his shortest prison sentence—four months and 1,000 hours of community service.
Berry’s cash-only attitude was one of the many factors that led him to have a certain reputation.
26. He Could Be Hard To Work With
We’re just going to say it: Berry could be a real piece of work sometimes. If you were to hire him during the 70s, you only got him and his guitar; the venue would have to supply the backing band and instruments. While this isn’t an indicator of his attitude, it’s necessary that we “set the scene” before explaining a string of what is without a doubt our favorite couple of facts about Chuck Berry.
27. He Kicked A Famous Fan Off Stage
You really can’t make this stuff up. In 1972, The Rolling Stone's legendary guitarist Keith Richards was part of the backing band for one of Berry’s gigs. Things seemed to be going well for this collected super group…until, that is, Berry shouted into the mic during the show that the keyboardist and guitarist (Keith) should get off the stage.
This should have been ego-bruising enough for Keith, but things only got worse from there.
28. He Wounded His Fan’s Pride
To make matters worse, Berry soon admitted that he didn’t even recognize Keith—one of the most famous guitarists in the world—at the time. There’s a rockstar lifestyle, and then there’s Chuck Berry’s lifestyle. This was no doubt an equally hilarious and soul-crushing moment for The Rolling Stones' guitarist.
But this wasn’t the only eventful encounter between the two stars, as Berry would end up bruising more than Keith’s ego. In one infamous encounter, Keith got a little too comfortable backstage at one of Berry's show—and earned himself a punch to the face for his transgressions.
29. He Performed At A Very Exclusive Venue
While Berry performed at many venues in the 70s, there was one that was without a doubt the most exclusive. Whether or not Berry (or anyone for that matter) agreed with then-president Jimmy Carter’s political ideologies, the big man nonetheless invited Berry to perform at the White House.
This was yet another feather in the musician’s cap, but it would not be the last.
30. He Made History
Just as he was one of the first rock stars, Berry was also the first to receive the honor of a certain accolade related to the genre. It seems like a given that Chuck Berry would be the first inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; he helped invent the genre, after all. But can you guess who swore him in?
None other than one of his biggest fans and fellow rockstars, Keith Richards. What a good sport.
31. His Biggest Fan Organized A Heck Of A Party
It seemed that no matter what he did, Keith Richards would continue to idolize Chuck Berry. Richards even went so far as to organize a celebratory birthday concert for his idol’s 60th birthday. The event managed to convey just how cherished Berry was, as it included legendary musicians like Eric Clapton.
It was a fleeting celebration, but its organizers ensured that it would endure beyond simple memory.
32. They Immortalized His Party
As yet another sign of Berry’s level of superstardom, his 60th birthday party concert was also made into the documentary film, “Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll”. It worked out to be a celebration of the rockstar and all of his contributions to the world of music.
1986 really was a huge year for the father of rock and roll, but it would be just one year later that the star would be up to his elbows in allegations again.
33. He Caused Trouble In New York
1987 was yet another year in which Chuck Berry showcased his aggressive side, especially toward women. Authorities charged the star with assaulting a woman in New York. But this encounter seemed particularly brutal, as the woman allegedly had lacerations and some loose teeth after the encounter. She also ended up needing five stitches.
Surely, Berry would receive punishment to match the severity of his actions. Right?
34. He Got Away With It
It seemed that Berry's ability to conjure controversy and damage his reputation matched his consistency as an excellent musician. In the case of the New York debacle, however, he faced almost no repercussions. In the end, Berry pleaded guilty to a simple harassment charge.
This didn’t result in a serious sentence, only an inconsequential fine of $250. But he wouldn't always be so lucky.
35. He Was A Creep
It seems that the most unsettling events surrounding Berry’s life happened in establishments that he owned. In 1990, several women sued Berry for installing a camera in the bathroom of his restaurant. While the accusations didn’t result in any convictions, Berry ended up paying over a million dollars in legal fees.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this wouldn’t be his last moment in the spotlight of controversy.
36. He Paid A Small Price
That same year, authorities raided Berry's house. They found evidence of some Berry's darker actions, including scathing proof of child abuse. Berry’s wrongdoings remained serious, but he seemed to get better and better at escaping any real repercussions. The star managed to dodge the most serious charges that came out of the raid, and consequently only received two years of unsupervised probation for possession of illicit substances.
Jumping forward to 2016, long after his golden age, Berry would have an exciting announcement for longtime fans.
37. He Re-entered The Studio After A Long Hiatus
It had been a long time, but Chuck Berry was finally ready to release more magic. After a 38-year hiatus from recording studio albums, Berry figured he still had one left in him. The 90-year-old rock and roll legend graced audiences with a new one, titled Chuck. Berry dedicated the album to his wife Toddy, but it would be the last one he'd ever release.
38. He Hadn’t Lost The Magic
Berry’s impressive discography, paired with the amount of time since his last release could leave some to assume that his last record would be disappointing—those people would be wrong. Yes, Berry still had it.
Chuck received overall positive reviews from music critics, many of which praised the album for recapturing the iconic artist’s style while remaining unique from previous releases. Unfortunately, Berry wouldn’t be around to receive his due praise.
39. He Didn’t See His Final Album’s Release
The much-anticipated Chuck was released in June 2017 to the joy of many listeners, but unfortunately, its creator wasn’t around to see its reception. On March 18th, 2017, emergency services arrived at Berry’s home after the star suffered a heart attack. The rock legend passed on at the impressive age of 90.
Celebrations of Berry’s life and achievements followed, many of which took place in his hometown.
40. He Received A Hometown Toast
Everyone mourned the loss of the legendary musician, especially those close to home. To honor Berry’s passing, dozens of bars across St Louis held a toast at 10 pm as a heartwarming final farewell. Clearly beloved and respected by many, Berry was rich in friends and family, but he was also rich in the conventional sense.
41. He Left Behind Quite The Estate
Berry’s success was far from metaphysical. Lawyers valued the late musician’s estate at a whopping 50 million dollars. Now that’s a lot of concerts and records! Berry would have passed peacefully knowing that his loved ones would be comfortable financially.
The value of his estate was especially impressive considering his humble beginnings way back in the 50s. Speaking of which…
42. You Can Visit His Old House
The house that the city of St Louis refers to as the “birthplace of modern rock ‘n’ roll as we know it” is still standing. This falls out of the chronology of the story we’re telling here, but we think it’s a good time to mention that you can go and visit the star’s old place of residence.
It would have been there that Berry wrote the music that would fuel his initial explosion of popularity. Kinda neat, right? We thought so too.
43. His Impact On Music Was Universal
Fellow artists, news publications, and magazines bestowed countless honors on the late musician, all hailing the father of rock n roll. Bob Dylan even referred to him as the “Shakespeare” of rock. He may not have been a pillar of morality, but it is undeniable that Chuck Berry revolutionized the world of music as we know it.
His musicality not only lives on in his fans but in his family too. His work was clearly impressive to humanity, but would it impress other potential lifeforms?
44. His Music Reached New Heights
Johnny went to space! Wait, what? Yes, that's right. Chuck’s “Johnny B Goode” was among the songs chosen to accompany Voyager 1 into space for its launch in 1977. On the off chance that Voyager 1 was to come into contact with other civilizations during its travels, Berry's music would help convey what earth had to offer in terms of musicality.
45. The Berry Line Didn’t Lose The Music
Just as Berry’s parents were responsible for exposing him to music, his own progeny became musicians in their own right, and they’re pretty good too: his son Charles Berry Jr and daughter Ingrid even performed on his father’s final studio album, Chuck, providing guitar and harmonica.
Through the combination of his music, family, and actions, the star left behind quite a legacy.
46. He Left Behind A Complicated Legacy
Whether you boycott an artist for their personal actions or not, we feel it’s important to know someone in their entirety. Publications today still discuss the acclaimed artist—both sides of him. His music and his controversies will endure alongside each other, and we think that’s a good thing.
One thing we know for sure is that the world won’t forget about Chuck Berry any time soon.
47. He Made Some Poor Choices
Chuck Berry's career was plagued by troubles with the law. Yet, his unruly antics began when he was still a teenager. It was near the end of high school that Berry had his first run-in with the law. He and some friends were skipping school together when they stumbled across a discarded pistol. Did they promptly hand their discovery over to the authorities? No. No they didn’t.
In a moment of youthful brazenness, Berry and his friends used it to rob several local businesses. They also stole a car...The consequences were severe.
48. He Messed Up Bad
1959 saw one of the most chilling moments of the rockstar’s turbulent life. Berry was already on the authorities' radar but he ran into more trouble with the law due to allegations that he'd slept with a 14-year-old waitress named Janice Escalante. He had transported her across state lines, hiring her to work at his club.
Not long after, Berry fired her, but when authorities later arrested Escalante, the musician's sinister actions came to light. The repercussions were shocking.
49. He Punched Him In The Face
Chuck Berry had a strained relationship with Keith Richards, even though the latter thoroughly revered the rock and roll pioneer. There are a handful of “interactions” between the two music legends that may raise an eyebrow or two, but this one strikes us as particularly memorable (although it probably struck Keith even harder). Keith was backstage at one of Berry’s shows when he decided to inspect one of his guitars.
Berry saw his instrument in the arms of another man and absolutely lost it, ultimately punching Keith in the face. The latter would later say it was one of Berry’s “biggest hits”.
50. Authorities Raided His Home
When it comes to Chuck Berry and legal woes, it really does get worse and worse. In 1990, authorities raided Berry’s home, finding evidence that would lead to some heavy charges, with the most serious one being child abuse. Alleged information that Berry had recently come into possession of illicit substances spurred the search, but once again, the star pulled a fast one.