By Monée Fields-White, The Root
Singer, guitarist and songwriter Chuck Berry, a giant in the history of rock ’n’ roll whose turbulent private life was marked by a rocky relationship with the legal system, died last Saturday at the age of 90.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry Sr. was born on Oct. 18, 1926, in San Jose, Calif., but his family moved to St. Louis just after his birth. Interested in music early on, he sang in the church choir and school glee club. Berry taught himself how to play the guitar in junior high school.
Just before graduating from high school, Berry was convicted of armed robbery and spent three years in reform school. He married within a year of his release in 1947 and worked as a carpenter and hairstylist while also playing guitar with different bands. In 1953 he joined a jazz-and-blues band, Sir John’s Trio, and played at the Cosmopolitan Club in St. Louis for the next three years. He made his mark with the group, changing its name to the Chuck Berry Combo and the musical style to a fast-paced mix of country, pop, and rhythm and blues.
In 1955 he went to see Muddy Waters in concert in Chicago, and afterward he asked the blues legend for advice about making a record. Muddy advised him to seek out Leonard and Phil Chess of Chicago’s Chess Records. He did, and they ended up signing Berry, who quickly had a string of top 10 hits, including “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Carol.”