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Chuck Berry: Biography & Songs

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Imagine being one of the first rock and roll stars! That's just what this native of St. Louis did by writing his own songs and giving energetic stage performances. In this lesson, explore the life and songs of Chuck Berry.

Beginnings

Chuck Berry grew up in St Louis, Missouri and learned how to play guitar in high school. The boy was always a bit rebellious, and as a teen, he spent time in reform school for a failed robbery. Later, Berry worked on the assembly line in an automotive plant and made money as a hairdresser while playing music at night in local clubs. During a trip to Chicago in the mid-1950s, he met blues musician Muddy Waters, who suggested he connect with Leonard Chess of Chess Records, a company that focused on blues and rhythm and blues.

In 1955, Berry brought a song to his first Chess recording session that he titled 'Ida Red'. He based it on an old traditional fiddle tune, and its lyrics told a tale of fast cars and unfaithful girlfriends. With Chess Records officials' suggestions, they added a steadier beat, renamed the song 'Maybellene' and Berry had his first big hit.

A String of Hits and a Singular Style

Chuck Berry became one of rock's first stars. His catchy songs tapped into teen subculture, and they proved very popular. A string of hits followed 'Maybellene', including 'Roll Over Beethoven' (1956), 'Sweet Little Sixteen' (1958), 'Johnny B. Goode' (1958), and 'Back in the USA' (1959).

Chuck Berry in his early years
Chuck Berry in his early years

Berry's success came from his unique musical style and energy as a performer. His music combined elements of blues, pop, rhythm and blues and country with boogie-woogie rhythms (repeated swing notes patterns that drive the music). He wrote his own witty lyrics, some of them risqué and playful, and used his electric guitar to dramatic effect, punctuating phrases and opening songs with solo riffs. Berry also did a distinctive duck walk on stage, squatting and edging forward in an animated manner (he said he'd developed the move as a child). He generated crowds of screaming fans, many of them white, and became known as the 'father of rock and roll.'

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