Born into a middle-class African-American family in St. Louis, Missouri, Berry had an interest in music from an early age and gave his first public performance at Sumner High School. While still a high school student he was convicted of armed robbery and was sent to a reformatory, where he was held from 1944 to 1947. After his release, Berry settled into married life and worked at an automobile assembly plant. By early 1953, influenced by the guitar riffs and showmanship techniques of the blues musician T-Bone Walker, Berry began performing with the Johnnie Johnson Trio. His break came when he traveled to Chicago in May 1955 and met Muddy Waters, who suggested he contact Leonard Chess, of Chess Records. With Chess, he recorded "Maybellene"—Berry's adaptation of the country song "Ida Red"—which sold over a million copies, reaching number one on Billboard magazine's rhythm and blues chart. By the end of the 1950s, Berry was an established star, with several hit records and film appearances and a lucrative touring career. He had also established his own St. Louis nightclub, Berry's Club Bandstand. But in January 1962, he was sentenced to three years in prison for offenses under the Mann Act—he had transported a 14-year-old girl across state lines. After his release in 1963, Berry had several more hits, including "No Particular Place to Go", "You Never Can Tell", and "Nadine". But these did not achieve the same success, or lasting impact, of his 1950s songs, and by the 1970s he was more in demand as a nostalgic performer, playing his past hits with local backup bands of variable quality. His insistence on being paid in cash led in 1979 to a four-month jail sentence and community service, for tax evasion.
Berry was among the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its opening in 1986; he was cited for having "laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance." Berry is included in several of Rolling Stone magazine's "greatest of all time" lists; he was ranked fifth on its 2004 and 2011 list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll includes three of Berry's: "Johnny B. Goode", "Maybellene", and "Rock and Roll Music". Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" is the only rock-and-roll song included on the Voyager Golden Record.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Berry was the fourth child in a family of six. He grew up in the north St. Louis neighborhood known as the Ville, an area where many middle-class people lived. His father, Henry William Berry (1895–1987), was a contractor and deacon of a nearby Baptist church; his mother, Martha Bell (Banks) (1894–1980), was a certified public school principal. Berry's upbringing allowed him to pursue his interest in music from an early age. He gave his first public performance in 1941 while still a student at Sumner High School; he was still a student there in 1944, when he was arrested for armed robbery after robbing three shops in Kansas City, Missouri, and then stealing a car at gunpoint with some friends. Berry's account in his autobiography is that his car broke down and he flagged down a passing car and stole it at gunpoint with a nonfunctional pistol. He was convicted and sent to the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, near Jefferson City, Missouri, where he formed a singing quartet and did some boxing. The singing group became competent enough that the authorities allowed it to perform outside the detention facility. Berry was released from the reformatory on his 21st birthday in 1947.
On October 28, 1948, Berry married Themetta "Toddy" Suggs, who gave birth to Darlin Ingrid Berry on October 3, 1950. Berry supported his family by taking various jobs in St. Louis, working briefly as a factory worker at two automobile assembly plants and as a janitor in the apartment building where he and his wife lived. Afterwards he trained as a beautician at the Poro College of Cosmetology, founded by Annie Turnbo Malone. He was doing well enough by 1950 to buy a "small three room brick cottage with a bath" on Whittier Street, which is now listed as the Chuck Berry House on the National Register of Historic Places.
By the early 1950s, Berry was working with local bands in clubs in St. Louis as an extra source of income. He had been playing blues since his teens, and he borrowed both guitar riffs and showmanship techniques from the blues musician T-Bone Walker. He also took guitar lessons from his friend Ira Harris, which laid the foundation for his guitar style.