While there is debate about who recorded the first rock and roll record, there is little doubt that Chuck Berry's "Maybellene" (1955) was a full synthesis of the rock and roll form, combining blues and country music with teenaged lyrics about girls and cars sung with impeccable diction, smoking electric guitar solos and a duckwalking stage personality.
Most of his famous recordings were on Chess Records with pianist Johnnie Johnson from Berry's own band and legendary record producer Willie Dixon on bass, the epitome of the rock and roll band.
Producer Leonard Chess recalled laconically, "I told Chuck to give it a bigger beat. History the rest, you know? The kids wanted the big beat, cars, and young love. It was a trend and we jumped on it."
Berry's idols were Nat King Cole, smooth singer and master pianist, Louis Jordan, very much Chuck's model, and Muddy Waters, singer and guitarist who turned Delta blues into Chicago blues and who introduced Berry to Leonard Chess at Chess Records.
Throughout his career Berry recorded both smooth ballads like "Havana Moon" and blues tunes like "Wee Wee Hours", but it was his own mastery of the new form that won him fame.
He recorded more than thirty Top Ten records and his songs have been covered by hundreds of blues, country, and rock and roll performers. The Rolling Stones literally founded their style on his. When Keith Richards inducted Chuck into the Hall of Fame, he said, "It's hard for me to induct Chuck Berry, because I lifted every lick he ever played!"
Chuck toured for many years carrying only his Gibson guitar, confident that he could hire a band that already knew his music no matter where he went. Among the many bandleaders performing this backup role were Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller. Springsteen backed Chuck again when he appeared at the Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
Appropriately, many of his hits are among the leading rock and roll anthems:
- "Johnny B. Goode", the autobiographical saga of a country boy who could "play a guitar just like ringing a bell", was chosen to represent the greatest achievements of humanity as part of the Voyager I collection of artifacts.
- "Rock and Roll Music", one of the first tunes recorded by The Beatles
- "Sweet Little Sixteen", with new lyrics it became a hit for the Beach Boys as "Surfin' USA".
- "Roll Over Beethoven", a cheeky announcement if ever there was one.
- "School Days", whose chorus, "Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll", was chosen as the title of a documentary concert film organized by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones as his tribute to Chuck, who appears in the film with many others.
- "Let It Rock", fantasia of gambling railroad workers that lives up to the title, written under the pseudonym E. Anderson. Turning a line like "there's an off-schedule train coming two miles out" into a cry for Dionysian revelry is not a skill given to all singers.
- "Maybellene" -- car, girl, rival, jealousy -- based on the country tune, "Ida Red", performed originally by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
- "Too Much Monkey Business", teenaged attitudes, predecessor to rap, "Same thing every day, gettin' up, goin' to school, no need of me complaining, my objection's overruled".
- "Brown-eyed Handsome Man", adult attitudes, "arrested on charges of unemployment"
- "Back in the USA", which inspired The Beatles' "Back in the USSR".
- "Nadine", the elusiveness of identity, strong lyrics, rhyming "coffee-colored Cadillac" with "campaign shouting like a Southern diplomat"
- "Memphis", unique beat, sweet story. Lonnie Mack and Johnny Rivers both built entire careers starting with this song.
- "Confessing the Blues", signature tune of the famed Kansas City, Missouri jazz band of Jay McShann
- "Merry Christmas, Baby", originally by Charles Brown
- "Things I Used to Do", by Louisiana's Guitar Slim
In the late 1980s, Berry owned a restaurant in Wentzville, Missouri, called The Southern Air. Berry also owns an estate in Wentzville called "Berry Park." For many years, Berry hosted rock concerts throughout the summer at Berry Park. He eventually closed the estate to the public due to the riotous behavior of many guests. Although in his late 70s, Berry continues to perform regularly, playing both throughout the United States and overseas. He performs one Wednesday each month at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar located in the Delmar Loop neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri.