Others may call him the father of rock n’ roll, but to Chuck Berry’s wife, Themetta “Toddy” Suggs, he was just Charles Edward Anderson Berry. The pair were married for nearly 70 years, longer than his entire musical career, and she gifted him with four amazing children.
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Chuck Berry’s Wife and Confidant
The pair married in October of 1948, just after Chuck had been released from a three-year stint in the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men near Jefferson, Missouri, where he was sent after a conviction for armed robbery. After his release in 1947, he got a job working construction with his father and as a janitor at a nearby automotive factory. But the love of music never left him.
With Toddy’s blessings, he started playing guitar in 1951 with an old high school classmate, Tommy Stevens. After some time playing at local nightclubs in the St. Louis area, Chuck moved to a new band, the Sir John’s Trio. It was playing with this group at the Cosmopolitan that Berry began getting cross-over notoriety with white patrons, an extreme rarity in the sharply segregated South of the time.
Most rock ‘n roll fans know the rest of Chuck’s story; how he recorded “Maybellene” in 1955 and watched it shoot up the Billboard charts after publishing it with Chess Records. How his followup hits defined the classic 50’s rock ‘n roll sound, from “Too Much Monkey Business” to “Johnny B. Goode.”
Throughout it all, Themetta was there by his side, listening and critiquing, pushing Chuck to be his best. Even well into his 80’s, his son, Charles Berry Jr., fondly told Rolling Stone a story of his mother and father interacting.
“He was always recording at home. He would come upstairs and to my mom, “Listen to this.” And she would give a thumbs up thumbs down. Thumbs up, he was done. Thumbs down – ‘I got more work to do.'”
Chuck Berry had four children with Themetta. The pair had two children before his meteoric rise to stardom. The first, Darlin Ingrid Berry, was born on October 3, 1950, and the second, Melody Exes Berry, was born two years later, on October 3, 1950. Their third child, Aloha Isa Lei Berry, was born on November 10, 1952. Chuck Berry’s only son, Charles Edward Anderson Berry Jr, was born on August 5, 1961, just six months before his infamous incarceration for violating the Mann Act.
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Through Thick and Thin
Berry spent from February 1962 to October 1963 at the Federal Medical Center in Springfield, Missouri, where he not only completed studies in business management, accounting, and business law, but also penned five songs that went on to crack the Billboard Top 100. “Nadine,” “No Particular Place To Go,” “You Never Can Tell,” “Promised Land,” and “Dear Dad” were all released by Chess Records from February of 1964 to March of 1965.
Even through that, his family remained close and by his side. Toddy was a frequent visitor to Chuck while he was incarcerated, and was there to watch him graduate from his advanced studies and deliver the valedictorian address. Chuck would later write in his autobiography the following.
“When I finishes [sic] the credits and extra courses in business management and accounting I was ready for graduation. My wife, Toddy, came to hear me deliver the valedictory speech and witness me receiving my diploma and extra certificates. One of the more pleasant memories, yet a bit sad, was that she wept as I was nearing the close of the valedictory address, causing me to stumble over some lines. Later she told me her sorrow was caused by the location of the occasion within the confines of a prison.”
Chuck Berry’s last album, which will be released posthumously, has the rather bittersweet dedication to his partner of 69 years. “This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy. My darlin’, I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”
Chuck Berry’s family has asked for privacy during this trying time so that they can mourn in private.
[Featured Image by Jamie Squire/Getty Images]