Chuck Berry, the man who ‘started it all,’ dead at 90
Legendary musician Chuck Berry died at his home just west of St. Louis, Missouri on Saturday, according to police. He was 90 years old.
The St. Charles County Police Department confirmed Berry’s death on Facebook, saying police responded to a medical emergency at his home at approximately 12:40 p.m. local time.
Police say Berry was found unresponsive and he was pronounced dead at 1:26 p.m.
His family is requesting privacy, according to the police statement.
“Every riff and solo played by rock guitarists over the last 60 years contains DNA that can be traced right back to Chuck Berry,” Sweden’s esteemed Polar Music Prize Foundation stated emphatically when awarding Berry its rock music prize in 2014.
Berry burst onto the scene in the mid-1950s, cutting songs at Chess Records that are woven into the very fabric of what became known as rock ‘n’ roll: Maybellene, Roll Over Beethoven, Johnny B. Goode, School Days, Rock and Roll Music, Sweet Little Sixteen, and No Particular Place to Go.
Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry on Oct. 18, 1926, to middle-class parents in the black neighbourhood of The Ville in St. Louis, Mo., Berry would grow up to produce an infectious alchemy of blues, hillbilly music and Western swing.
He wrote story songs — often humorous — about working dead end jobs, or hitting the open road with a girl. They were crammed with geographic locations and innovative lyrics about fast cars, teen dances or consumerism.
“I concentrated on this fun and frolic, these novelties,” he told Rolling Stone in 2000. “I wrote about cars because half the people had cars or wanted them. I wrote about love, because everyone wants that.”
In his youth, Berry learned to play piano, saxophone and guitar. His father was deacon of a Baptist church and his mother was a school principal.
As a musician, he cut a dapper, lanky figure onstage with his conk hairstyle, wispy mustache and sideburns.
He thrilled crowds with nimble work on his Gibson guitar and his most famous move — crouching with his guitar and scooting backwards on one heel in what became known as the “duck walk.”
Rock history wouldn’t be the same if he had served the full 10-year term for an armed robbery spree committed with two friends in his late teens.
But he was let out in three, which left him free to bring his guitar to local clubs and meet, in succession, piano player Johnnie Johnson, bluesman Muddy Waters and Chicago label owner Leonard Chess.
They were the three most instrumental in getting Chess to record Maybellene (originally titled Ida Mae) and Wee Wee Hours in the summer of 1955.
The song was a hit for the 29-year-old Berry, and he soon built a star following among white teenagers, helping him escape an eked-out living in jobs that ranged from hairdresser, gas station attendant to assembly line worker.
If rock and deviance were related, Berry did his best to give the critics ammunition throughout his career, beginning with a Mann Act charge of transporting a minor over state lines in 1960. He said he was bringing her to a job in his club as a hat-check girl. Authorities said the 14-year-old was a prostitute.
While locked up for 18 months he wrote hits Nadine and You Never Can Tell, used memorably 30 years later in the Pulp Fiction film dance scene.
By the mid-1960s, his impact was felt mostly through those he influenced. The Beatles recorded Rock and Roll Music and Roll Over Beethoven, The Rolling Stones opted for Carol, and he (eventually) got himself a co-writing credit when Brian Wilson copped his melodies for Surfin’ U.S.A.
Berry fought fiercely for every penny owed, refusing to be a victim of the theft suffered by other early black rock and rhythm and blues artists.
He kept his overhead low, serving as his own manager and relied on pickup bands around the world instead of travelling with his own group. Berry demanded payment up front for his shows, preferably in cash.
The performance fee went up when he hit the top of the pop charts for the first time in 1972 with My Ding-A-Ling, an absurd novelty song he tried gamely to defend years later to Q magazine.
“A lot of people like that song,” he said. “And I LOVED that song because that little, weenie song made my wallet so fat and happy, ha-ha-ha.”
The “cash in the guitar case” ethos, though, often led to problems. With money in hand, more than a few shows were said to be performed half-heartedly or saw the enigmatic Berry leave the stage early.
More seriously, he spent a few months of 1979 in jail for tax evasion.
Berry’s last recording of original material came in 1979, but the mid-1980s saw a flurry of activity, with Keith Richards of the Stones often at the centre.
The Stones’ shaggy-haired rhythm guitarist inducted Berry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, sheepishly admitting, “It’s very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry because I lifted every lick he ever played.”
Richards was bandleader for tribute concerts to Berry that year in St. Louis, with Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt and Etta James among those performing.
The concert footage was the musical bed for a documentary, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll in which Berry memorably clashed with Richards on camera, and reportedly on set with director Taylor Hackford.
In 1948, shortly after his release from prison on the armed robbery conviction, Berry married Themetta Suggs and they stayed married for the rest of his life.
But in an autobiography released in 1987, he appeared to revel in recounting various flings on the road. As long as you keep “the home fires burning,” he reasoned.
Berry had businesses and a nice spread in suburban Missouri, but trouble came home in July 1990. Acting on a tip that he was moving kilos worth of cocaine (never found), authorities instead allegedly discovered marijuana, hash and pornographic videotapes.
It was alleged that cameras had been installed in air ducts in the women’s washroom at his restaurant.
Berry said he was being framed by a disgruntled employee, but the end result was that he settled out of court a lawsuit filed on behalf of several women.
He might have forever been a pariah in today’s age of social media approbation, but just under three years later, Jack Lemmon was enthusiastically introducing him fronting an all-star band at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration ball as “the man who started it all.”
The last years of his life were marked by accolades like the Kennedy Center honours in 2000, and a touring schedule that belied his age.
Closer to home, he played several gigs every year at the Duck Room stage of the Blueberry Hill club in St. Louis.
Pop star Lorde stopped by the club in March 2014 and posed for pictures with Berry. She tweeted: “Watched chuck berry and his talented family and band play at the duck room tonight, the stars are in my eyes still.”
In 2016, on his 90th birthday, the musician announced the upcoming release of a new studio album — his first in more than 35 years.
Berry is survived by his wife, three daughters and a son.