Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in St. Louis to a middle class black family. His father Henry was a contractor and a Baptist deacon, while his mother Martha was a school principal. While in high school, he was convicted of armed robbery, which resulted in his being sent to a reformatory until he turned 21. He got married and worked in two automobile assembly factories and as a janitor, and eventually starting performing with some local bands in order to earn extra income.
In 1955, Berry signed with Chess Records, thus starting his long recording career. He produced a series of hit records through the end of the 1950's, and opened a nightclub in St. Louis. An arrest for transporting a teenage girl across state lines resulted in a 18-month prison term in 1962 and 1963, after which he resumed his music career. In 1972, he released his only #1 single, My Ding-A-Ling, written by Dave Bartholomew. He would afterwards record music less frequently, but numerous bands would cover many of his songs. He continued performing up to 100 gigs per year, often getting paid in cash, which led to a conviction for under-reporting his income, resulting in a 4-month prison term in 1979.
Chuck Berry's contributions to early rock and roll, and his influence on musicians who came after him, can never be overstated. According to John Lennon, who sang the lead vocal on the Beatles' cover of Berry's Rock And Roll Music, "if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'." Ted Nugent once said, "If you don't know every Chuck Berry lick, you can't play rock guitar."
Read more at Billboard, Variety, Rolling Stone, Ultimate Classic Rock and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Here are a few of my favorite Chuck Berry songs:
Sweet Little Sixteen, which could be called the original version of Surfin' USA by the Beach Boys.
The above-mentioned Rock And Roll Music, covered by the Beatles and much later by those same Beach Boys.
The above-mentioned Roll Over Beethoven, covered by the Beatles with George Harrison singing lead, Mountain, ELO, and many others.
And finally, the chart-topping My Ding-A-Ling, where Chuck is the coverer instead of the coveree. Here's a live version, with lots of audience participation.
Of course, there are quite a few other influential songs by Chuck Berry. As another Berry-influenced musician named Pete Townsend once sang, long live rock!