Themetta “Toddy” Suggs was more than just Chuck Berry’s wife of 68 years — she was also one of his biggest inspirations, who helped him hit it big after a low point in his life.
Berry died on Saturday at the age of 90, leading to an outpouring of love and support from across the music world. Many remembered him as one of the foremost pioneers of rock and roll, whose unique sound would go on to inspire a generation of musicians ranging from The Beatles to Bob Dylan.
But others have acknowledge the part that Themetta Suggs played in Chuck Berry’s success, including helping him through a controversial prison stint. The two were married for 68 years and had four children together — Ingrid Berry Clay, Chuck Berry, Jr., Aloha Isa Lei Berry, and Melody Exes Berry.
Before meeting Themetta “Toddy” Suggs, Chuck Berry was actually at a low point in his life. He struggled to fit in at his school and was uninterested by his studies, Biography reported, and eventually dropped out at age 17 and decided to trek from his home in St. Louis to California with two of his friends.
But the trip turned out disastrous, the report noted.
“They had gone no farther than Kansas City when they came across a pistol abandoned in a parking lot and, seized by a terrible fit of youthful misjudgment, decided to go on a robbing spree.
“Brandishing the pistol, they robbed a bakery, a clothing store and a barbershop, then stole a car before being arrested by highway patrolmen. The three young men received the maximum penalty — 10 years in jail — despite being minors and first-time offenders.”
Chuck Berry served three years in the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men in Missouri before being released on his 21st birthday. He moved back to his home in St. Louis and started work at his father’s construction business.
It was then that Berry met Themetta Suggs, who would become his wife. After working a series of odd jobs for three years, Berry joined a former high school classmate and started a band. With the support of his wife, Chuck Berry started to make a name for himself across black nightclubs in St. Louis and eventually found larger success, Biography noted.
But even as he hit it big, Chuck Berry still found struggles. In 1958, he picked up a 14-year-old girl during a trip to Mexico and brought her back to work in his club. He eventually fired the girl, and when she was later arrested for prostitution, Berry was sent to jail for transporting a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes,” Biography noted.
Though the arrest was met with some controversy, Berry served another 20 months, with Themetta Suggs remaining his support. In his 1987 biography, Berry noted that she even showed up to see him give a valedictorian speech for a prison course of schooling.
“When I finished 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,” Berry recalled. “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.”
As his career continued on through the 1990s, Themetta was still a major source of support and inspiration. And when Chuck Berry announced on his 90th birthday last October that he would be releasing his first album in 38 years, he dedicated it to his wife.
“This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” Berry said in a statement, via ITV. “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 final tribute to wife Themetta “Toddy” Suggs — his final album — will be released later this year.
[Featured Image by Stephen J. Boitano/AP Images]