The Polar Music Prize 2014 is awarded to Chuck Berry from St. Louis, USA. The parameters of rock music were set one day in May 1955, when Chuck Berry recorded his debut single “Maybellene”. Chuck Berry was the rock’n’roll pioneer who turned the electric guitar into the main instrument of rock music. Every riff and solo played by rock guitarists over the last 60 years contains DNA that can be traced right back to Chuck Berry. The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and a million other groups began to learn their craft by playing Chuck Berry songs. Chuck Berry is also a superb songwriter. In the course of three minutes he conjures up an image of the everyday life and dreams of a teenager, often with the focus on cars. Chuck Berry, born in 1926, was the first to drive up onto the highway and announce that we are born to run.

Chapter: Inspiration

Musical curiosity

Chuck Berry had many influences on his life that would shape his musical style. It all started with the smooth vocal clarity of his idol, Nat King Cole, while playing heavier blues songs inspired by Muddy Waters. He developed a love for poetry and hard blues early on. For his first stage performance at the Sumner High School in St Louis, where the blues was well-liked but not considered appropriate for such an event, Berry chose to sing a Jay McShann song called “Confessin’ the Blues.” He got a thunderous applause for his daring choice, and from then on, his only wish was to be on stage.

Early blues (View Playlist on Spotify)

The Hillbilly blues

After this first successful stage performance, Berry took up the guitar and found out that if he learned rhythm changes and blues chords, he could play most of the popular songs at the time. He also founded his particular sign of recognition, his showmanlike presence on stage, which quickly made him a name. The Sir John Trio, led by pianist Johnnie Johnson, played regularly at the popular Cosmopolitan Club in St Louis and needed a stand-in on New Year’s Eve 1953. Young Chuck joined the band and started to develop his unique style to be more riff based with a hillbilly style, a genre often associated with a white audience at the time. Thanks to the different influences, no one, black or white, in the audience could resist Berry’s show and style, and he played more and more for mixed audiences, which in the US of the 50s must have been quite unique.

Hillbilly blues (View Playlist on Spotify)
Press Photo of Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry, by the end of the 1950s (Photo: © Chuckberry.com)
Chapter: Chess records

Chess records

In 1955, Chuck Berry went to Chicago and a club where his idol, Muddy Waters, was performing. He arrived late and only heard the last song, but when it was over he got the attention of Waters and asked him who to see about making a record. Waters replied, “Yeah, Leonard Chess. Yeah, Chess Records over on Forty-seventh and Cottage.” Berry went there discovered it was a blues label where greats like Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley recorded. He didn’t have any tapes to show, but Chess was willing to listen if he brought some back from St. Louis…

Chess Record Corp.
Center label for one of the biggest Chess hits, "Manish boy" by Muddy Waters. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Howlin Wolf
Howlin' Wolf in 1972 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Doug Fulton)
Muddy Waters in Florida
Muddy Waters in Florida in the mid 70s (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Greg Goode)

…so Berry went home and recorded some originals, including a song called “Ida May” that would later on become “Maybellene.” He drove back to Chicago to audition and much to Berry’s surprise, it was that hillbilly number that caught Chess’ attention. Berry was signed to Chess Records and in the summer of 1955, “Maybellene” reached #5 on the Pop Charts and #1 on the R&B Charts. Through Chuck Berry, Chess Records moved from the R&B genre into the mainstream and Berry himself was on his way to stardom.

Chess pieces: the very best of Chess records (View Playlist on Spotify)
Chuck Berry the
Dubbed the “Eternal Teenager,” Chuck Berry’s knowledge of the pop market made it possible for him to break color barriers and play to an integrated audience. (Photo: © Billboard)
Chapter: History in the making

History in the Making

Berry continued his success with such hits as “Brown-Eyed Man”, “Too Much Monkey Business”, “Memphis”, “Roll Over, Beethoven!” and “Johnny B. Goode,” his masterpiece that brings together all Berry’s musical elements, a combo that makes him unique. It cemented his place in rock history and led to fame in the 1950s. His popularity garnered him television and movie appearances and he toured frequently. Berry’s incredible success is due to his ability to articulate the concerns and attitudes of his audience in his music.

A song's popularity can be measured in its amount of covers... (View Playlist on Spotify)
Chapter: From St Louis to Great Britain

From St Louis to Great Britain

John Lennon and Chuck Berry
"If you were going to give rock & roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry" - John Lennon (Photo: © Chuckberry.com)
Chuck Berry
From St Louis to Liverpool, first released on Chess records. (Photo: © Geffen/Universal Music)
The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones Five by Five, recorded in Chess Studios in 1964. Includes "Around and Around" by Chuck Berry. (Photo: © Decca/Universal Music)

Rock and roll

British teenagers discovered Berry’s music in the early 60s and turned his older songs into hits all over again. America discovered the Beatles and the Rolling Stones at the same time, both of whom based their music on Berry’s style, with the Stones’ early albums looking like a Berry song list. Chuck Berry’s music then saw a great double revival worldwide and he came back with a bunch of hits; “Nadine”, “No Particular Place to Go”, “You Never Can Tell”. He toured Britain in triumph, and released St Louis to Liverpool, an album with a title reminder of the British success.

Chuck Berry performing with Keith Richards for Berry's 60th birthday.
Chapter: From here to eternity

From here to eternity

In the beginning of the 70s, Chuck Berry’s music and show included more slow blues and less rock n roll. He scored his first gold record with “My Ding a Ling” in the early 70s. He toured a lot on stages, on radio stations or in TV-studios, playing with bands he had strongly influenced. Among the featured performances were Polar Music Prize Laureate Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller, both at the beginning of their careers. Springsteen related in the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll that Berry did not give the band a set list and just expected the musicians to follow his lead after the guitar intros. 1986 fittingly saw him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as the very first inductee in history.

Chuck Berry passed away in 2017.

Chuck Berry in France 1987
Chuck Berry in France, 1987 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Roland Godefroy)
Chuck Berry Johnny B. Goode on
"Johnny B. Goode" is featured in the Voyager I spacecraft on a disc with "Sounds of Earth." It also includes the sounds of whales, Mozart and greetings in over fifty languages.  (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/NASA)
Chuck Berry
Album cover for Back Home (Photo: © Geffen/Universal Music)
Legendary Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards congratulates Chuck Berry for receiving the Polar Music Prize.
Chapter: Polar Music Prize 2014

Stockholm August 2014

On August 26, Peter Sellars and Chuck Berry received the Polar Music Prize at the ceremony in the Stockholm Concert Hall.

Amanda Jenssen live at the Polar Music Prize award
Amanda Jenssen live at the Polar Music Prize award (Photo: Annika Berglund © Polar Music Prize)

Unfortunately, Chuck Berry couldn’t attend the ceremony due to illness but fellow guitarist Dave Edmunds received the prize for Berry. Edmunds was also interviewed by Jan Gradvall at the Polar Music Talks the previous day, together with panel discussions and debates about music and creativity.

Dave Edmunds interviewed by Jan Gradvall at Polar Music Talks 2014

The ceremony

Keith Richards congratulated Chuck Berry to the prize and added how much Berry’s music had meant to him. Notorious Swedish artists such as Kajsa Grytt and Nicke Andersson from The Hellacopters celebrated Chuck Berry by performing his music, and Sweden’s legendary rock’n’roll singer Jerry Williams both performed and read the citation for Mr Berry.
"Havana moon" by 2014 Polar Music Prize Laureate Chuck Berry, performed by Sabina Ddumba and Melinda De Lange. Johan Lindström on lap-steel guitar and Dan Berglund on bass.
Jerry Williams performing "You never can tell"
Amanda Jenssen, "Rock n' Roll Music"
Citation read by Jerry Williams
Dave Edmunds and Peter Sellars with the prize statuettes designed by Efva Attling
Edwards and Sellars with the prize statuettes (Photo: © Polar Music Prize photo Annika Berglund)
Dregen and Maria Andersson who both performed at the ceremony. (Photo: © Polar Music Prize photo Annika Berglund)
Dregen and Maria Andersson who both performed at the ceremony. (Photo: © Polar Music Prize photo Annika Berglund)
Kajsa Grytt performing at the ceremony.
Kajsa Grytt performing at the ceremony (Photo: © Polar Music Prize photo Annika Berglund)

The banquet

The banquet at Grand Hotel in Stockholm also offered some wonderful musical moments, with Swedish songwriter and singer Sarah Dawn Finer hosting the evening. Among the performances were Dave Edmunds together with Nisse Hellberg.

The banquet at Grand Hotel in Stockholm also offered some wonderful musical moments, with Swedish songwriter and singer Sarah Dawn Finer hosting the evening. Dave Edmunds himself entered the stage and performed with Nisse Hellberg.
© Polar Music Prize, photo Annika Berglund
Sarah Dawn Finer, hosting the Polar Music Prize banquet 2014
Sarah Dawn Finer, hosting the banquet (Photo: © Polar Music Prize, photo Annika Berglund)
Marie Ledin, MD of the Polar Music Prize, at the Polar Music Prize banquet 2014
Marie Ledin, CEO of the Polar Music Prize (Photo: © Polar Music Prize, photo Annika Berglund)
Emil Svanängen, aka Loney Dear, performing at the Polar Music Prize banquet 2014
Emil Svanängen, aka Loney Dear, performing at the banquet. (Photo: © Polar Music Prize, photo Annika Berglund)