Chuck Berry and Teenage Culture in the 1950s
Teenagers were a new species at the beginning of the 1950's. Before then, adolescents in America had traditionally gone to work to support their family or to start their own family as soon as they were old enough. However, the years of post-war prosperity and the expansion of suburbia provided teenagers (who were too young to remember the scarcities of the Depression and the war effort) with plenty of leisure time. At the same time, advances in technology made vinyl 45's cheap and easily accessible to both artists and listeners. White teenagers bought up pop hits coming off the Billboard 100, although many who were listening to black radio stations preferred rhythm and blues tunes which were always played by black performers. In fact rhythm and blues was pretty much used as a synonym for black music. Chuck Berry was one of the first black musicians to do well with a white audience. Because of his middle class background, his energetic performing style, and his youth-associated lyrics, Chuck Berry broke through the race barrier and became one of the first "rock stars."
Berry became a representative of the teenage generation, even though he recorded his first single at the age of 29. His experience growing up, though he was almost 15 years older than many of his fans, was similar enough to the suburban experience that he could easily identify with the restless attitude of white middle class teens. Berry was "a city kid from St. Louis . . . not rooted in the rural past as were the country blues artists at Chess." (DeWitt, 140) The joys of fast cars, young love, and a rockin' beat that Berry prized as a teenager did not diminish with his age.
Berry grew up around East St. Louis. Like other middle class families of the 1950's, the Berry's were upwardly mobile, moving from rented apartments to owned homes as the family grew. His father worked long enough hours that Chuck did not need to help provide for the family. The savings he made from jobs helping his dad with carpentry and bagging groceries all went to a down payment on a car. Berry purchased a '34 V-8 Ford from a fellow churchgoer, and he quickly discovered that automobiles would be a life long love. The car enabled him to travel in style to the USO dances where he could satisfy his other teenage cravings with plenty of records to spin and girls to dance with.
A run-in with the law unfortunately cut this high point in his life short. One day into a road trip with two of his friends out west, Berry had run out of money and wheels (literally). When the three tried to steal a car to continue their trip, they were arrested and he was given a 10-year sentence at the age of 17. Berry was released early on his 21st birthday, but he had still missed out on the rest of high school and his teenage years. Perhaps this lost opportunity was the reason that he remained enamored with teenage life well into middle age.
Chuck Berry's role as an...