One of the kings of American rock ’n’ roll, Chuck Berry, has died. He was 90.
The legendary African-American musician, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, gave his first performance in high school. Since then, he forged a life that included three years in reform school, 20 months in prison, and decades in the spotlight, pioneering a musical form that has become synonymous with American music.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry, who went by the nickname Chuck, was famous for such 1950s hits as Maybellene, Roll Over Beethoven, Sweet Little Sixteen, and Johnny B. Goode. The singles — revolutionary combinations of pop, country music and blues — were dance hits in high school gymnasiums and music clubs across the United States. His musical style helped give birth to the age of the American teenager, all hormones and energy and optimism.
Influence for many musicians
Berry’s hit Maybellene was a rock ’n’ roll treatment of a country song known as Ida Red. Berry wrote in a memoir that his music label, Chess, “couldn’t believe that a … hillbilly song could be written and sung by a black guy.”
His music influenced most of the popular musicians that came after him, including such well-known music legends as the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and the Grateful Dead. Referring to Berry in the mid-1980s, Rolling Stone’s Keith Richards famously quipped, “I’ve stolen every lick (guitar improvisation) he ever played.”
Born in the Midwest
Berry was born into a middle-class family in Missouri and gave his first performance at Sumner High School, historic in its own right as the first African-American high school west of the Mississippi River, a dividing line that separates the eastern third of the country from the West.
Berry is credited with originating many quirks exclusively associated with the rock ’n’ roll genre, including a rollicking, danceable beat, his famous “duck walk” and a heavy, rhythmic guitar style that he may well have been described in the song Johnny B. Goode: “just like he’s ringin’ a bell.” Legend has it that he developed his duck walk as a means of hiding the wrinkles in the one good suit he had brought on tour.
As for Johnny B. Goode — originally meant to be about a black boy, but changed to “country boy” for wider appeal — countless bands covered it, among them the Beatles, country star Buck Owens and heavy metal band Judas Priest.
Run-ins with the law
Berry’s brushes with the law came early and late. In high school, he was arrested for armed robbery and spent three years in a reformatory, between 1944 and 1947. He emerged to go to work in an automobile factory, but he was playing music publicly with the Johnnie Johnson Trio by 1953. A meeting in Chicago with famed blues musician Muddy Waters led to the release of Maybellene, national fame and a string of hits.
In 1961, Berry got in trouble for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines and served 20 months in prison, a period in his life that friends said changed him forever. In 1979, he served 120 days in prison for tax evasion.
Berry’s music evolved at a time when racism was running high; blacks and whites were segregated into different schools, businesses, churches and public facilities. But his music attracted fans of all ethnicities.
Music for everyone
“I made records for people who would buy them,” he said once. “No color, no ethnic, no political — I don’t want that, never did.”
Despite his troubles with the law and the conditions of the times, Berry rose to the top of his profession.
He received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984, became one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and was given a Kennedy Center Honors Award in Washington in 2000 for his lifetime of contributions to American cultural life.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced March 16 that Berry’s work will be featured in a new exhibit alongside that of Elvis Presley and other rock ’n’ roll greats, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the music magazine Rolling Stone.
Berry said the musical genres that inspired him were swing and big band, the music of the 1940s. In an appearance on The Tonight Show in 1987, Berry said he originally wanted to play the more traditional musical styles.
“The main guy was Louis Jordan. I wanted to sing like Nat Cole, with lyrics like Louis Jordan, with the swing of Benny Goodman, with Charlie Christian on guitar playing Carl Hogan’s riffs with the soul of Muddy Waters,” he said.
But Berry knew a good thing when he saw it. Married to his wife, Themetta Suggs, since 1948 and with four children to support, Berry embraced the musical style that made his career. In the 1957 hit Rock and Roll Music, Berry sang, “It’s gotta be rock ’n’ roll music, if you wanna dance with me.”
Berry’s final original album, titled Chuck, is expected to be released by Dualtone Music Group later this year.