Chuck Berry, the dynamic guitarist and songwriter, whose unique singing style crossed all genres and put the R in rock and roll with such hits as “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Maybellene” and “Johnny B. Goode,” died March 18 at his home in St. Charles County, Missouri. He was 90.
The St. Charles County Police Department confirmed his death after arriving at his house after a 911 emergency call. Lifesaving measures were unsuccessful.
On his 90th birthday, Berry announced his plan to release his first studio album in almost 40 years, entitled “Chuck,” to be released in June. This capsule of his life’s work, consisting of mainly new compositions, would feature his children, son Charles Berry Jr. on guitar and daughter Ingrid on harmonica, and would be dedicated to his wife of 68 years, Themetta Berry.
Berry, the consummate entertainer, performed once a month at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant in St. Louis, where he appeared regularly from 1996 to 2014, with intermittent dates until Oct. 24.
During those rock and roll days when Berry hit the stage, his songs, such as “Roll Over Beethoven,” sent young people into their own dancing orbit. Now, Berry’s song “Johnny B. Goode” is in orbit on golden records within the Voyager I and Voyager II space probes that were launched in 1977.
Berry’s many honors include the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1984) and the Kennedy Center Honors (2000). He was ranked seventh on Time magazine’s 2009 list of the 10 best electric guitar players of all time.
Berry is included in several of Rolling Stone magazine’s “Greatest of All Time” lists. In September 2003, the magazine ranked him No. 6 in its list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” His compilation album “The Great Twenty-Eight” was ranked 21st in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
John Lennon of the Beatles said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’ He was one of the main architects of rock and roll.”
His style was more than boogey woogey, tinges of the blues, country twang, R&B, the lindy swing and the Brooklyn two-step. On “Thirty Days” he brings in call and response, and hard-hitting drum beats.
When he picked up his guitar and began to sing, his music was immediately infused into the veins of teenage America. His song “Almost Grown” had to be a teenage theme song.
His songs tell stories of fast cars, those crazy high school days, young love, “No Particular Place to Go,” but he can’t open her seat belt.
When it came to song writing, he was a genius. Fans knew his songs from the first note, whether on his guitar or vocally. He was that good. His music is addictive. The lyrics are crazy humorous, but they grab hold of you until you sing along and dance. Just listen to “You Can Never Tell” (1964). The piano chords are crazy fluctuating in every direction but it catches your attention and you need more.
Charles Edward Anderson “Chuck” Berry was born Oct. 18, 1926, in St. Louis, Mo. He grew up in a middle-class section of the city. His father, Henry William Berry, was a contractor and deacon of a nearby Baptist church and his mother, Martha Bell (Banks), was a public school principal.
His interest in music began at an early age, and his first performance took place in 1941, while he was attending Sumner High School.
While still in high school, Berry was arrested for stealing a car and robbing stores, which landed him in the reformatory, where he earned his GED. Throughout his life, Berry would be sparring with the hands of justice.
In 1948, Berry married Themetta Suggs, who gave birth to Darlin Ingrid Berry in 1950 (during the years the couple had three other children).
To support his family he took various jobs as a factory worker, a janitor in his apartment building and later as a beautician. To supplement his income, Berry played with local St. Louis bands at night.
In 1953, he joined pianist Johnnie Johnson in Sir John’s Trio, which later became known as the Chuck Berry Combo. He learned a lot from the colorful Texas guitarist T-Bone Walker. His playing style of guitar riffs and showmanship antics came from his mentor.
The band played mostly blues and ballads, but the most popular music among whites in the area was country, and Berry had a mix of country and R&B tunes that brought in white folks looking to dance to this new swing rock and roll. This period was in the midst of segregation, so Blacks and whites were not enjoying Berry live at the same time.
In 1955, while Berry was in Chicago, one of his idols, the bluesman Muddy Waters, suggested he speak with Leonard Chess, one of the owners of Chess Records about recording. Chess was interested in his song “Ida Red,” a country song. Chess pumped up the rhythm and beats, and changed the title to “Maybellene.” The song hit the charts with a vengeance, No. 5 on the Billboard pop chart and No. 1 on R&B chart.
This success was in part because of the disc jockey Allan Freed, who put the song in regular rotation on his radio show. His name was added to the credits as a songwriter for a share of the publishing royalties.
From 1955 to 1958, Berry knocked out classic after classic. Now, as an established performer, Berry opened a racially integrated St. Louis nightclub, Berry’s Club Bandstand.
Berry’s great songs and animated moves, especially his famous “duck walk,” which was better than Elvis’ gyrations any day, offered him the opportunity to appear in a variety of music shows, such as Alan Freed’s “Biggest Show of Stars for 1957,” touring the United States with top white performers such as the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly.
He appeared in two early rock-and-roll movies: “Rock, Rock, Rock” (1956) in which he sang “You Can’t Catch Me,” and “Go, Johnny, Go!” (1959) in which, aside from a speaking role as himself, he performed “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Little Queenie.”
His music was so dynamic and it blurred the genre lines so much that he was invited to perform “Sweet Little Sixteen” at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. That appearance was captured in the motion picture “Jazz on a Summer’s Day.”
He also played at large events in North America, such as the Schaefer Music Festival in New York City’s Central Park in July 1969, and the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival in October of that year.
One of Berry’s biggest hits was “My Ding-a-Ling” in 1972. The song was very humorous and turned out to be very audience interactive and a great crowd pleaser. The song, as the title suggests, had more than one meaning that made the lyrics even more hilarious. It was called a novelty song that was included on the album “The London Chuck Berry Sessions.”
He performed at the White House for President Jimmy Carter in 1979. That same year he also appeared as himself in the 1979 film “American Hot Wax,” about 1950s rock and roll music.
His records are a rich castle of the essential components that make up rock and roll and R&B. In addition to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones recording a string of his songs, the California rockers, the Beach Boys, retuned his “Sweet Little Sixteen” into “Surfin’ U.S.A.” (unfortunately, Berry had to sue to get his writing credit).
The superstar musician/bandleaders who backed up Berry early in their careers (1970s) were Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller. In 1986, Taylor Hackford made a documentary film, “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” of a celebration concert for Berry’s 60th birthday, organized by the rockers guitar elite (influenced by Berry) Keith Richards. Eric Clapton, Etta James, Julian Lennon, Robert Cray and Linda Ronstadt, among others, appeared with Berry onstage and in the film.
During the concert, Berry played a Gibson ES-355, the luxury version of the ES-335 that he favored on his 1970s tours. Richards played a black Fender Telecaster Custom, Cray a Fender Stratocaster and Clapton a Gibson ES 350T, the same model that Berry used on his early recordings.
Berry was an effortless rock and roller who never missed a beat. He lived like his song “Reelin’ and Rockin’”/ “Well I looked at my watch and it was 10 past 6, but I’m gonna keep on going until I get my kicks…We were reelin’ and rockin’ until the break of dawn.”
The master of rock and roll is gone, but “Maybellene,” “Almost Grown,” “With No Particular Place to Go,” will swing as “Johnny B. Goode” goes “Around and Around” with “Beautiful Delilah.”
Berry is survived by his wife Themetta and four children: Ingrid Berry, Melody Eskridge, Aloha Isa Leigh Berry and Charles Berry Jr.