Charles Edward Anderson “Chuck” Berry (born October 18, 1926) is an American guitarist, singer and songwriter, and one of the pioneers of Rock and Roll music. With songs such as Maybellene (1955), Roll Over Beethoven (1956), Rock and Roll Music (1957) and Johnny Be Goode” (1958), Berry refined and developed R&B rhythm and blues into the major elements that made rock and roll distinctive, with lyrics focusing on teen life and consumerism and utilizing guitar solos and showmanship that would be a major influence on subsequent rock music.

Born in St. Louis, Berry had an interest in music from an early age and gave his first public performance in High School.

In 1944, while still at Sumner High School, he was arrested and convicted of armed robbery after robbing three shops in Kansas City and then stealing a car at gunpoint with some friends. Berry’s own account in his autobiography is that his car broke down and he then flagged down a passing car and stole it at gunpoint with a non-functional pistol.  Berry was sent to the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, near Jefferson, where he formed a singing quartet and did some boxing. The singing group became competent enough that the authorities allowed it to perform outside the detention facility.

After his release on his 21st birthday, Berry settled into married life and worked at an automobile assembly plant, a janitor, and trained to be a beautician. By early 1953, influenced by the guitar riffs and showmanship techniques of blues player T-Bone Walker, Berry began performing with the Johnnie Johnson Trio.  His break came when he traveled to Chicago in May 1955, and met Muddy Waters, who suggested he contact Leonard Chess of Chess Records.

With Chess he recorded “Maybellene”—Berry’s adaptation of a song called Ida Red, which sold over a million copies, reaching number one on Billboard’s Rhythm and Blues chart. By the end of the 1950s, Berry was an established star with several hit records and film appearances to his name as well as a lucrative touring career. He had also established his own St. Louis-based nightclub, called Berry’s Club Bandstand.

But in January 1962, Berry was sentenced to three years in prison for offenses under the Mann Act—he had transported a 14-year-old girl across state lines.

After his release in 1963, Berry had more hits in the mid 60’s, including No Particular Place to Go, You Never Can Tell, and Nadine.”

In 1979 he served 120 days in prison for tax evasion. Chuck Berry was sentenced to four months in prison under the charges of $200,000 worth of unpaid taxes. He was also required to complete 1,000 hours of community service, which he fulfilled by doing benefit concerts.

Local promoters often paid performers in cash for their appearances.  This became cause for the Internal Revenue Service to be skeptical of Berry’s tax returns, accusing him officially of income tax evasion. The singer pled guilty to the charges and received a reduced sentence. He served out his sentence at Lompoc Prison Camp in Southern California.  During his time there, Berry intended to write his autobiography, which was later published in 1987.  He brought his guitar, writing materials, and two dictionaries with him into his cell.

In 1990 Berry was sued by several women who claimed that he had installed a video camera in the ladies’ bathrooms at two of his St. Louis restaurants legend hid cameras inside the ladies and videotaped women changing and using the toilet. . A class action settlement was eventually reached with 59 women on the complaint. Berry’s biographer, Bruce Pegg, estimated that it cost Berry over $1.2 million plus legal fees.

My Ding-a-Ling indeed!
By the mid-1970s, he was more in demand as a nostalgic live performer, playing his past hits with local backup bands (including Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band) of variable quality.  Believe it or not, he is still touring today at age 89.

 

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