Chuck Berry, rock n’ roll legend, dies at 90
Chuck Berry, long considered to be the true king of rock n’ roll thanks to his unforgettable guitar riffs and brash attitude, died on Saturday. He was 90.
According to the St. Charles County Police Department in Missouri, Berry died in his home near Wentzville, Mo. Authorities called to his house were responding “to a medical emergency” and were ultimately unable to resuscitate Berry.
Described as rock n’ roll’s “master theorist and conceptual genius” by the New York Times, Berry is one of the most influential figures in the roots of rock n’ roll. While Elvis Presley is frequently dubbed “the king” and remains the genre’s iconic figure, it was Berry who developed the sound upon which rock n’ roll was founded.
Born on Oct. 18, 1926, in St. Louis, Berry was raised in a segregated, middle-class neighborhood where he was able to soak in the best of gospel, blues, country and more. He spent three years in reform school after committing a series of car thefts and an armed robbery. He received a degree in hairdressing and cosmetology and worked for a time as a beautician. He eventually married Themetta Suggs in 1948 and started a family. She survives him, as do four children: Ingrid Berry, Melody Eskridge, Aloha Isa Leigh Berry and Charles Berry Jr.
He began playing music in the early 1950s, but it was when he learned a technique for bending strings from Texas guitarist T-Bone Walker that his career took off. The now-famous “Chuck Berry lick” has been emulated by nearly every major rock n’ roll artist since, with The Rolling Stones likely being chief among them.
In 1955, Berry traveled to Chicago and got to meet with the legendary Leonard Chess of Chess Records. He showcased his song “Ida Red,” later named “Maybelline,” to Chess, who was immediately hooked. “The big beat, cars and young love,” Mr. Chess outlined. “It was a trend, and we jumped on it.”
Using his amalgamation of country and blues, as well as a telegraphic diction that led many 1950s listeners to assume he was white, Berry quickly rocketed through the charts, earning legions of adoring teenage fans in the process. His tracks helped lay the foundation of rock n’ roll mythos, with songs like “Johnny B. Goode” from 1958, which tells the story of a musician who could “play the guitar just like ringin’ a bell.”
His music inspired many of the greatest artists of the 1960s, namely The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys. In fact, Berry ended up successfully suing The Beach Boys for a songwriting credit on their hit “Surfin’ USA,” which is an unsubtle rework of Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.”
Just as Berry’s audience was peaking, however, legal trouble derailed him. He had been arrested in 1959 and charged with transporting a teenage girl across state lines for “immoral purposes.” He was tried twice and found guilty both times; the first verdict was overturned because of racist remarks by the judge. After serving a 20 month jail sentence, Berry was released in 1964 and found that his wife had left him (they later reconciled) and his songwriting was not what it once was. Still, he continued to perform and ultimately recorded his only No. 1 hit in 1972, the double-entendre novelty track “My Ding-a-Ling.”
Legal woes followed him, however. In 1979, he was sentenced to 120 days in federal prison and four years of probation for income tax evasion. In 1990, police raided his home and discovered 62 grams of marijuana, as well videotapes from a camera in the women’s room of a restaurant Berry had opened. He received a suspended jail sentence and two years’ probation thanks to a plea bargain.
Still, Berry’s legacy as a pioneer endured. He was in the first class of inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. He was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys in 1984. And he continued to sell out shows into his 80s. He even announced his first album of new material in 40 years, simply titled Chuck, which will be released this June. “Johnny B. Goode” was also featured on the golden records sent into space in 1977, included so that extraterrestrial civilizations who discovered the records could understand human culture.
When asked about the power of rock music by Rolling Stone in 1969, Berry delivered the perfect insight into its longevity: “Like any music, it brings you together, because if two people like the same music, they can be standing beside each other shaking and they wind up dancing, and that’s a matter of communication … so I say it’s a means of communication, more so than other music, to the kids.”