Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry on October 18, 1926, in a middle-class black neighbourhood of St. Louis, Missouri, he learned to play guitar as a teenager and performed publicly for the first time at Summer High School covering Jay McShann’s “Confessing’ the Blues.”
From 1944 to 1947 Berry was in reform school for attempted robbery; upon release he worked on the assembly line at a General Motors Fisher body plant and studied hairdressing and cosmetology at night school.
After his release from prison on his 21st birthday in 1947, Berry married Themetta “Toddy” Suggs on October 28, 1948, who gave birth to Darlin Ingrid Berry on October 3, 1950.
Berry supported his family doing a number of jobs in St. Louis: working briefly as a factory worker at two automobile assembly plants, as well as being janitor for the apartment building where he and his wife lived.
By the early 1950s, Berry was working with local bands in the clubs of St. Louis as an extra source of income. By early 1953 Berry was performing with Johnnie Johnson’s trio, starting a long-time collaboration with the pianist.
At the end of June 1956, his song “Roll over Beethoven” reached No. 29 on the BillboardTop 100 chart, and Berry toured as one of the “Top Acts of ’56.” He and Carl Perkins became friends.
Perkins said that “I knew when I first heard Chuck that he’d been affected by country music. By the end of the 1950s, Berry was a high-profile established star with several hit records and film appearances to his name, as well as a lucrative touring career.
He had opened a racially integrated St. Louis-based nightclub, called Berry’s Club Bandstand, and was investing in real estate. Berry’s albums mixed his rock and roll hits with the more sophisticated blues, ballads and instrumentals he enjoyed playing away from the spotlight.
It’s worth noting that Berry was considerably older than the teenagers for whom he was writing rock and roll music. When “Sweet Little Sixteen” became a hit in 1958, he was nearly twice the age of the music-smitten adolescent he wrote the song about.
Berry’s songs had become so entrenched in the fabric of American popular culture that he didn’t even tour with a band. Pianist Johnnie Johnson’s 30-year association with Berry ended in 1973.
Berry travelled alone with a suitcase and guitar, requiring promoters to provide a backing band for each gig. His contract also spelled out the amps he wanted onstage and mandated full prepayment of his performance fee.
His experiences in the music business had left him wary, and his business acumen made him shrewd. By travelling only with his guitar, he cut down on expenses and payroll. Moreover, it gave a lot of young musicians a chance to apprentice with a living legend.
In 2003, Rolling Stone named him number six on its list of the Greatest Guitarists of All Time. In 2011, a statue of Berry was erected on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. And in 2012, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum honoured Berry with its American Music Masters Award.