Born September 14, 1959, in Aiken, SC; married; wife’s name, Robin (a singer); children: Taylor Marie, Sean Thomas, one other son. Addresses: Record company–Capitol Nashville, 3322 West End Ave., Nashville, TN 37203.
Country music listeners sat up and took notice when singer and guitarist John Berry poured his baritone mix of southern soul, soft rock, and country out over the airwaves in 1993. While staunch traditionalists shook their heads at yet another blow to the country music bastion, Berry worked hard to build on a strong fan base from his native Georgia. He has recorded several top-selling albums, and his singles, including “Your Love Amazes Me” and “Standing on the Edge of Goodbye,” give added fire to the “New Country” movement.
Berry was born September 14, 1959, in Aiken, South Carolina, but grew up across the state line in Atlanta, Georgia. As a kid, he was drawn to the smooth sounds of rhythm and blues; he counted bands like the Chi-Lites and the Stylistics among his favorites. Interested in becoming a performer, Berry got occasional gigs as a soloist during high school, but music ultimately took the back seat to more practical concerns.
In 1981 Berry hit a low spot. That was the year his mother passed away. Berry’s heartfelt loss strengthened his growing dissatisfaction with his job and his part-time musical career. Things got worse after he was involved in a near-tragic motorcycle accident. While doctors feared that he might not walk again, Berry was convinced otherwise. During the months spent in slow, often painful, physical therapy–while working to regain the use of his legs–Berry decided how to turn things around. “That was the same year I turned 22, and when I finally got out of the hospital, I had a direction in my life,” the singer told Country Music City News contributor Kimmy Wix. “Music. I always knew music was where I should be, but it took a while for me to make a full-time commitment.”
Berry worked on his music for almost ten years, singing in bars and clubs near his home, moving to Athens in 1985, and eventually building a substantial following among students at the University of Georgia. He even started his own record company to produce and distribute recordings of his songs for local fans. Berry and his wife, Robin–who was a backup singer–also hosted benefit concerts for local charities on the land around their home. “I’d starved to death in Atlanta,” he recalled in an interview with Country Music’s Bob Allen, “but then all of a sudden I got this gig in Athens and went from making a hundred bucks a week … to making six hundred dollars a week just from my music. And it never went down from there.”
Finally, Berry made a move on Music City, where he planned to sign on with Warner Bros. in 1990. But his hopes for national stardom were put on hold when the deal fell through. Not one to give up, Berry quickly rebounded from the disappointment and performed in a showcase at a Nashville club, where representatives from Liberty Records took one listen and were hooked. Liberty signed the singer and released his first album in June of 1993.
The swanky, uptempo “Kiss Me in the Car” joined “A Mind of Her Own” as the first singles released from Berry’s self-titled major-label debut. But with their strong soul element, they received only moderate radio airplay and gave a lackluster showing on the country charts. It wasn’t until Liberty changed its strategy and presented country radio stations with a ballad cut that listeners tuned in to Berry and his music. Soon he was crisscrossing the United States on promotional tours and concert engagements. Although the thrill of making it in Nashville kept him going, family and friends were concerned about the toll his music was taking on his health. “I just felt like hell and I didn’t have any idea why,” Berry admitted to Allen. “I had continuous headaches … and my appetite kept getting worse and worse.” At the end of one show in Philadelphia, the singer knew something was wrong when he blacked out during a solo.
Meanwhile, “Your Love Amazes Me” became the biggest hit single off his first album; it topped the country charts, hanging on to the Number One spot for several weeks. And country fans let the newcomer know that they accepted him into the country fold when John Berry went gold–and then platinum.
But the success of his first hit was lost on Berry. On May 10, 1994, as “Your Love Amazes Me” coasted to its Number One spot, Berry was being wheeled into an operating room in Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital to undergo a five-and-a-half hour surgical procedure to drain a benign cyst in his brain. Less than a month later, he would take the stage at Nashville’s annual Fan Fair to thank his thousands of fans and well-wishers. “I’m not in so much of a hurry anymore,” Berry told Billboard’s Peter Cronin, explaining how undergoing brain surgery had changed his life. “And I try to spend as much time as I can with my family.”
Standing on the Edge, released by Capitol, was Berry’s second contribution to country music. Backed by some of the best songwriters in Music City–Vince Gill, Stewart Harris, and Don Schlitz, to name just a few–the album includes “Ninety Miles an Hour,” a song that propelled Hank Snow to the top of the charts in 1963. Berry’s sophomore effort reflects a variety of genres, from the folk-rock inspired “There’s No Cross That Love Won’t Bear” to the bluesy “Desperate Measures.” Although not achieving the chart success of the earlier track “Your Love Amazes Me,” singles from the album sent a clear signal that Berry would be around for a while.
“I like to quote Dolly Parton,” the singer told Cronin, responding to the fact that his sound has been tagged “not real country” by tradition-minded country music fans. “‘Country is what you are in your heart.'” Berry laughed at the prospect of being labelled a pop singer: “It ain’t gonna work, because those aren’t the people I sing for. [But] out here where I live, some people don’t think I’m country because I just paved my driveway!”
In 1995 Capitol/Nashville rereleased two of the recordings Berry made on his own label for his Georgia fans: Things Are Not the Same and Saddle the Wind. He also recorded an album of Christmas music entitled O Holy Night, which contains such holiday favorites as “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”–songs he sings as part of a program put on in his hometown church each year.
The following summer Berry released a more middle-of the-road effort with Faces. This recording finds Berry paying tribute to his influences with a mix of folk, rock, and soul. But, as Alanna Nash pointed out in her review in Entertainment Weekly, “it’s still the power ballads that measure as a 10 on the Richter scale.” Berry, his wife, Robin–who remains one of his backup singers–and his growing family live on a 72-acre farm in the Georgia countryside.