In the late 1950s Chuck Berry purchased a 35-acre plot in rural St. Charles County where he dreamed of creating a lavish property to rival those of the segregated country clubs he'd seen growing up in St. Louis. The result was "Berry Park," a sprawling compound complete with guest cottages, a nightclub and guitar-shaped swimming pool. Today the 17,000-square-foot mansion he built at Berry Park remains the rock & roll legend's primary residence. He also keeps a second home in the affluent suburb of Ladue.
It wasn't always this way.
Click on the pin drops for a tour of Berry's early homes and businesses.
For the first 30 years of his life (minus a short stint in prison), Berry lived in essentially the same black, working-class neighborhood of north St. Louis. Here is a look at those first St. Louis properties owned or occupied by Chuck Berry -- before all those music royalties came rolling in. Up first: The site of Chuck Berry's birth -- the home where he got his first taste of music.
2520 Goode Avenue Chuck Berry was born October 18, 1926, at 6:59 a.m. inside a small home at 2520 Goode Avenue, now known as Annie Malone Drive. The family moved a few years after Berry's birth, and the home was soon torn down for construction of Homer G. Phillips Hospital, which served for decades as the city's only medical center for blacks. Although his time at the Goode home was short, it was here that a young Chuck Berry was first introduced to music. As he writes in his autobiography:
Mother and daddy were of the Baptist faith and sang in the Antioch Church choir. The choir rehearsed in our home around the upright piano in the front room. My very first memories, while still in my baby crib, are of musical sounds -- the assembled pure harmonies of the Baptist hymns, dominated by my mother's soprano and supported by my father's bass blending with the stirring rhythms of true Baptist soul. I was always trying to crawl out of my crib and into the front room to where the rhythm came from. Long before I learned to walk I was patting my foot to those Baptist beats, rocked by the rhythm of the deacons' feet focused on the tempo of the times. Oh! But the feeling it generated still stirs my memory of back when. Hallelujah!Next: The Berrys move to a home with modern luxuries such as a telephone.
4420 Cottage Avenue After briefly moving to a home across the street from Berry's birthplace on Goode Avenue, the Berry family settled at 4420 Cottage Avenue, also in the Ville neighborhood. They would stay at this location for just about two years. Recalls Berry of the 4420 Cottage home:
Late in the second grade our family moved again. Daddy found a five-room brick bungalow with full bath, full basement, central heating, and a front and backyard just two blocks away at 4420 Cottage Avenue. We thought it was a palace to have closets and front and back porches. The rent was $25 a month. Mother dug in her savings and added new pieces of furniture that included a new Whirlpool washing machine and a pedal Singer sewing machine that (to my delight) I was invited to pedal while mother sewed. Daddy had some white people install a telephone which brought a million questions from me about its function.Next: The Berrys move to a home that Chuck will return to time and time again as a teen and young adult.
4319 Labadie While Berry was in fourth grade, his family moved again to a duplex on Labadie Street. The Berry family (which in addition to Chuck included his parents, Henry and Martha, and five siblings) would stay at this home for years with Berry returning to the home at the age of 21 (after serving four years in a juvenile center for a carjacking) and, again, a few years later with his new bride, Themetta. The Labadie home has since been torn down, but the property is still owned by Chuck Berry. In his autobiography Berry recalls that the duplex had four rooms with bath and basement and a second floor with the same number of rooms. And it was at this home that Berry first developed his infamous kink. He writes:
One evening I came through the gangway of home and heard water running in the bathroom on the second floor next door. The light from the window was casting down on the roof of our porch. Temptation told me I might finally see a girl's parts, so I hurried to the room and creeped toward the open window to redeem my dream. There, through six inches of raised shade, I saw -- for the first time in my life -- the bare buttocks of a woman about to step into the bathtub. I froze, instantly excited, and crouched stunned and amazed at my long-awaited view of the opposite sex. She even turned around momentarily and allowed a direct view of the front part as she came over to pull the down the shade.Next: Chuck Berry and his young wife, Themetta, get their first place on Delmar Boulevard.
4352 Delmar Boulevard Chuck and Themetta Berry have been married now for 66 years. But in early 1949 the couple was newly hitched and looking for a place to call their own. They found that first spot in a rooming house owned by Berry's maternal uncle at 4352 Delmar. The couple would stay there for less than a year -- eventually moving back in with Berry's family at 4319 Labadie. Still for a short while, the happy newlyweds had a place of their own and felt that they were really making it -- even if they were not. During this time, Berry was earning $80 a week at an auto assembly plant and another $35 a week doing handyman work with his father. Themetta, meanwhile, brought in another $20 a week working at a cleaners. Writes Berry of their short stint at 4352 Delmar:
We had a 1941 Buick, a refrigerator and were on our way to riches. We were living like the best of the white folks until one evening we were dressed in our "Sunday clothes" on our way to a movie. All the tenants were on the porch chatting as we noticed our parking space. There was no '41 Buick parked where we'd left it at the curb. I boasted about calling the police but knew it had been repossessed by the finance company.Up next: Berry moves to the home where he'd pen his greatest hits. The now-vacant building was recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
3137 Whittier Street In 1950 an expecting Chuck and Themetta purchased their first home at 3137 Whittier Street. It was around this same time that Berry bought his first electric guitar, a second-hand instrument purchased for $30 in $5 installments. Soon an old friend who sang with Berry at the Sumner High School choir called Berry and invited him to play with his hand. After a several gigs, Berry caught the attention of boogie-woogie keyboardist Johnnie Johnson, who asked him to perform with his band at the Cosmo Club in East St. Louis, Illinois. The group soon became known as the Chuck Berry Combo, and by 1955, an enterprising Berry stopped by unannounced at Chess Records in Chicago and signed a contract.
It was while living at the Whittier home from 1950 to 1958 that Berry recorded his biggest hits, including "Maybelline," "Rock and Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Johnny B. Goode," "Reelin' and Rockin'," and "Roll Over Beethoven." In 1956 Berry's growing family (he and Themetta would eventually have four children) led him to build a two-room addition onto the back of the Whittier home. In 2012 the house was added the National Register of Historic Places, and today the badly deteriorating home is one of thousands of vacant properties owned by the city's LRA. Still visible (though faded) is the "B" on the home's metal awning that stands for "Berry." In his autobiography, Berry writes of his home on Whittier:
Savings were really accumulating in our joint account, and we finally found a house we were able to buy. We chose a small three-room brick cottage with a bath and full basement at 3137 Whittier Street, only five blocks from 4319 Labadie. Four-hundred and fifty cold cash dollars at one counting was the sweaty down payment on the $4,500 home. The white family of Dimottios who lived next door welcomed us with open arms, giving us a pot of spaghetti over the backyard fence. I remodeled the house, adding a half bath and bedroom in the basement, where we moved so we could rent out the upper three rooms for additional income.Next: Berry buys a building to serve as headquarters for his budding music business and fan club.
4221 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive (formerly Easton Avenue) In late 1957 Berry established Chuck Berry Music Inc. and the Chuck Berry Fan Club, both of which operated out of a building he purchased at 4221 West Easton Avenue (now known as Dr. Martin Luther King Drive). It was inside this building that Berry produced his hit song "Memphis," recording the tune on a $79 Sears-Roebuck recorder. Today the building houses a hair salon and a daycare center.
Next: Berry opens up Club Bandstand, a music venue and tavern on North Grand Avenue.
814 North Grand Avenue In 1959 Chuck Berry opened up Club Bandstand, a bar and music venue adjacent to Powell Hall that he hoped would be like the mixed-race nightclubs he'd seen in the Northeast. It never took off. That same year, Berry was arrested for transporting a minor across state lines when he brought a fourteen-year-old woman he had met in El Paso, Texas, up to St. Louis to work for him at Club Bandstand. Berry would eventually be convicted of violating the Mann Act (also known as the "white-slave traffic act" for the racist ways in which it was enforced) and sentenced to three years in prison. Club Bandstand closed quietly within a year of opening its doors. Writes Berry:
The city came down with all sorts of ordinances about fire protection orders, and complaints were said to be coming from businesses a half block away about the noise and prowling late at night. When the liquor license was threatened because of an owner being involved in criminal activities, I decided to pull the stakes and quit.Next: Chuck and Themetta move into a large home on a private street in north St. Louis.
13 Windermere Place By the late 1950s Chuck Berry was constantly on the road touring and starting to receive handsome royalty checks for his music. He had finally made it, and in 1958 he and Themetta (whom he calls "Toddy") purchased what would be their last property in St. Louis before the money really started flowing and he moved on to mansions west of town. Writes Berry of his home on Windermere Place:
Jully 11, 1958, I purchased a large eleven-room dwelling on the northern half of a private street, 13 Windermere Place, for $30,000. It was more elaborate than anything Toddy and I'd ever dreamed of living in.Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @chadgarrison.
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