Chuck Berry, Rock 'n' Roll Pioneer From 1950s, Dies at 90By and
The singer, songwriter and guitarist forged genre in 1950s
His hits included ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and ‘Maybellene’
Chuck Berry, the singer, guitarist and songwriter who laid a cornerstone for rock ‘n’ roll music in the 1950s and influenced generations of performers who followed, has died. He was 90.
He died Saturday in St. Charles, Missouri, according to a post on the St. Charles County Police Department’s Facebook page. Officers were unable to revive him after responding to a medical emergency call at a residence.
Berry was responsible for some of the best-known tunes in rock, including “Johnny B. Goode” “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.” His music featured a driving beat and rapid-fire guitar licks that called and echoed the song’s lyrics. He melded bravado, humor and smirking innuendo to create an onstage persona that was as defining as his music. A Berry show was often punctuated by his signature “duck walk,” or walking with both knees fully flexed, and crouching and hopping on one bent leg while swinging the other.
The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead and many other musicians covered Berry’s songs. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the first class in 1986.
“You name any top group, and they’ve all been influenced by him,” John Lennon once said.
Berry, who was black, figured in the breakdown of popular music’s racial divide that mirrored broader shifts in the U.S. after World War II. He attracted a fan base made up mostly of young white teenagers who followed him as he and they aged.
Berry once said he had often heard that blacks “are born with rhythm. Maybe it’s true, but I came to find out, so were white boys.”
Berry set himself apart by writing his own words and music. Before he came along, “a singer sung songs and a songwriter wrote them, and the twain never did meet,” Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards said in the 1987 film about Berry, “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
“He did the same thing with the guitar that he did with his voice and with his writing,” the late singer Roy Orbison said in the same film. Orbison referred to “the way the lyrics rolled off the tongue, the way they stabbed, the way they cut, and the way they sort of seemed to lay there with the drums.”
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born on Oct. 18, 1926, in St. Louis. Henry William Berry, his father, was a carpenter and Martha, his mother, was a college graduate who studied to be a teacher, he wrote in “Chuck Berry: The Autobiography.”
Berry’s parents sang in a Baptist church choir that sometimes practiced at the family’s home, and he developed an interest in music at an early age, he wrote. He taught himself how to play guitar with the help of a neighborhood barber.
Berry listened to Muddy Waters, Arthur Crudup, Sister Rosetta Tharp and other artists on the radio. A recording of Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie Woogie” piqued his interest in making a career in music, he wrote. First, though, he spent three years in jail after he and two friends stole a car.
Paroled in 1947, Berry worked as a janitor in an automobile plant, did carpentry work with his father and trained to be a hairdresser. He married Themetta “Toddy” Suggs in 1948. The couple had four children.
Berry began playing the guitar at clubs and parties. A gig with pianist Johnnie Johnson’s group at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis, Illinois, on New Year’s Eve 1953 was when “my career took its first firm step,” Berry wrote. He joined the band and became its leader.
Much of the music played around St. Louis was country-western or swing, appealing mainly to white audiences. Berry liked that sound and the jazz of Nat “King” Cole, one of his idols, along with the blues. Berry drew elements from each genre, building a distinctive style that tended to revolve around three or four repeating chords.
“Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of the country stuff on our predominantly black audience, and some of the club-goers started whispering, ‘Who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo?”’ he wrote in his autobiography.
Whites began to frequent the club as well, and Berry speculated they were there because of his country songs.
In 1955, Berry went to Chicago with a friend for a concert by Muddy Waters, another idol. After the show, he asked Waters whom he should see about making a record.
Waters sent him to Leonard Chess, who co-owned the Chess Records label, catering to blues artists. Chess liked Berry’s “Ida Red,” inspired by a song from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and suggested he record it with a different name.
Retitled “Maybellene,” the single climbed to No. 5 on Billboard magazine’s pop chart. While he made the chart another two dozen times, his only No. 1 hit was the risque “My Ding-A-Ling,” recorded live and released in 1972.
Berry was also popular with rhythm-and-blues audiences. “Maybellene” topped the Billboard R&B singles chart. So did “School Days” -- its lyrics included “hail, hail rock ‘n’ roll” -- and “Sweet Little Sixteen.” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Thirty Days” reached No. 2.
“As long as the music has something to do with your walk of life, I think that people will listen,” he said in “Hail, Hail.” School, cars and love made that kind of connection, he added, so he wrote about them.
Berry said “Johnny B. Goode” was a tribute to Johnson, his pianist, and referred to his mother’s prediction that his name “would be in lights” someday if he made something of himself. The lyrics originally referred to a “colored boy,” but Berry changed it to “country boy” to avoid alienating white fans.
The song starts off with Berry on guitar, playing what became known as the “the Chuck Berry riff,” a series of repeated notes performed in a choppy rhythmic, blues-based style.
“In those days, you weren’t a rock guitarist if you didn’t know the riveting lick that kicks off ‘Johnny B. Goode,”’ rock critic Dave Marsh wrote in “The Heart of Rock and Soul,” published in 1989.
Guitarist Eric Clapton put it this way in an interview for “Hail, Hail”: “He’s really laid the law down for playing that kind of music.”
Berry, who had to share writing credit for “Maybellene” with disc jockeys Alan Freed and Russ Fratto, proved to be a savvy businessman. He invested in real estate and opened Berry Park, an amusement park near St. Louis.
In his dealings with the music industry, he was often distant and disputatious. He traveled alone on tour, required promoters to hire local musicians to back him up at each stop, and demanded to be paid in cash.
“He gave me more headaches than Mick Jagger,” Richards said after working with Berry on a concert to honor Berry’s 60th birthday.
Bruce Springsteen first played behind Berry in the early 1970s, before signing a recording contract. Springsteen and the E Street Band backed him at the rock hall of fame’s opening concert in 1995.
Berry’s musical career was interrupted by two more stints in jail: 20 months, beginning in 1962, for violating the Mann Act by driving an underage girl across state lines, and four months in 1979 for income-tax evasion for failing to account for his cash income.
In 1990, he was accused of marijuana possession and child abuse after a police raid, prompted by allegations that he had videotaped women getting undressed and using the bathroom at Berry Park and a nearby restaurant. Berry pleaded guilty to the marijuana-related charge, and the child-abuse case was dropped.
Johnson, who worked with him until 1973, filed a lawsuit against him over royalties and songwriting credits in 2000. A judge dismissed the suit and said the pianist had waited too long to file the case.
Berry never drank or used drugs and gave up smoking years ago, friend Joe Edwards said in a May 2006 interview. He toured into his 80s and performed often at Edwards’s St. Louis club, Blueberry Hill, usually to sellout crowds. Berry’s daughter Ingrid and son Charles sometimes performed with him.
When NASA put musical recordings and other items of world culture in its Voyager 1 space probe in 1977, “Johnny B. Goode” was the only rock song included. The move inspired a skit on the television show “Saturday Night Live” in which the first contact from outer space was this message: “Send more Chuck Berry.”