Rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry dies at 90

Chuck Berry, who with his indelible guitar licks, brash self-confidence and memorable songs about cars, girls and wild dance parties did as much as anyone to define rock 'n' roll's potential and attitude in its early years, died on Saturday. He was 90.

  • Published 20.03.17
Chuck Berry

March 19: Chuck Berry, who with his indelible guitar licks, brash self-confidence and memorable songs about cars, girls and wild dance parties did as much as anyone to define rock 'n' roll's potential and attitude in its early years, died on Saturday. He was 90.

The St. Charles County Police Department in Missouri confirmed his death on its Facebook page. Berry died at his home near Wentzville, Missouri, about 45 miles west of St. Louis. The department said it responded to a medical emergency and he was declared dead after lifesaving measures were unsuccessful.

While Elvis Presley was rock's first pop star and teenage heartthrob, Berry was its master theorist and conceptual genius, the songwriter who understood what the kids wanted before they knew themselves. With songs like Johnny B. Goode and Roll Over Beethoven, he gave his listeners more than they knew they were getting from jukebox entertainment.

His guitar lines wired the lean twang of country and the bite of the blues into phrases with both a streamlined trajectory and a long memory. And tucked into the lighthearted, telegraphic narratives that he sang with such clear enunciation was a sly defiance, upending convention to claim the pleasures of the moment.

In Sweet Little Sixteen, You Can't Catch Me and other songs, Berry invented rock as a music of teenage wishes fulfilled and good times (even with cops in pursuit). In Promised Land, Too Much Monkey Business and Brown Eyed Handsome Man, he celebrated and satirised America's opportunities and class tensions. His rock 'n' roll was a music of joyful lusts, laughed-off tensions and gleefully shattered icons.

Berry was well past his teens when he wrote mid-1950s manifestoes like Roll Over Beethoven, Rock and Roll Music and School Day. Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry on October 18, 1926, in St. Louis, he grew up in a segregated, middle-class neighbourhood there, soaking up gospel, blues, and rhythm and blues, along with some country music.

He spent three years in reform school after a spree of car thefts and armed robbery. He received a degree in hairdressing and cosmetology and worked for a time as a beautician; he 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.

By the early 1950s, he was playing guitar and singing blues, pop standards and an occasional country tune with local combos. Shortly after joining Sir John's Trio, led by the pianist Johnnie Johnson, he reshaped the group's music and took it over.

From the Texas guitarist T-Bone Walker, Berry picked up a technique of bending two strings at once that he would rough up and turn into a rock 'n' roll talisman, the Chuck Berry lick, which would in turn be emulated by the Rolling Stones and countless others. He also recognised the popularity of country music and added some hillbilly twang to his guitar lines. Berry's hybrid music, along with his charisma and showmanship, drew white as well as black listeners to the Cosmopolitan Club in St. Louis.

In 1955, Berry ventured to Chicago and asked one of his idols, the bluesman Muddy Waters, about making records. Waters directed him to the label he recorded for, Chess Records, where one of the owners, Leonard Chess, heard potential in Berry's song Ida Red.

A variant of an old country song by the same name, Ida Red had a 2/4 backbeat with a hillbilly oompah, while Berry's lyrics sketched a car chase, the narrator "motorvatin" after an elusive girl. Chess renamed the song Maybellene, and in a long session on May 21, 1955, Chess and the bassist Willie Dixon got the band to punch up the rhythm.

Berry articulated every word, with precise diction and no noticeable accent, leading some listeners and concert promoters, used to a different kind of rhythm-and-blues singer, to initially think that he was white. Teenagers didn't care; they heard a rocker who was ready to take on the world.

The song was sent to the disc jockey Alan Freed. Freed and another man, Russ Fratto, were added to the credits as songwriters and got a share of the publishing royalties. Played regularly on Freed's show and others, Maybellene reached No. 5 on the Billboard pop chart and was a No. 1 R&B hit.

From 1955 to 1958, Berry knocked out classic after classic. Although he was in his late 20s and early 30s, he came up with high school chronicles and plugs for the newfangled music called rock 'n' roll.

No matter how calculated songs like School Day or Rock and Roll Music may have been, they reached the Top 10, caught the early rock 'n' roll spirit and detailed its mythology. Johnny B. Goode, a Top 10 hit in 1958, told the archetypal story of a rocker who could "play the guitar just like ringin' a bell".

Berry toured with rock revues and performed in three movies with Freed: Rock, Rock, Rock, Mr. Rock and Roll and Go, Johnny, Go. On film and in concert, he dazzled audiences with his duck walk, a guitar-thrusting strut that involved kicking one leg forward and hopping on the other.

In the early 1960s, Berry's songs inspired both California rock and the British Invasion. The Beach Boys reworked his Sweet Little Sixteen into Surfin' U.S.A. (Berry sued them and won a songwriting credit.) The Rolling Stones released a string of Berry songs, including their first single, Come On, and the Beatles remade Roll Over Beethoven and Rock and Roll Music.

In 1972, Berry had the biggest hit of his career with My Ding-a-Ling, a double-entendre novelty song that was included on the album The London Chuck Berry Sessions.

It was a million-seller and Berry's first and only No. 1 pop single. It was also his last hit.

By the 1980s, Berry was recognised as a rock pioneer. He never won a Grammy Award in his prime, but the Recording Academy gave him a lifetime achievement award in 1984. He was in the first group of musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

He made a surprising announcement on his 90th birthday, October 18, 2016: He was planning to release his first studio album in almost 40 years. The album, called simply Chuck and scheduled for release in June, was to consist primarily of new compositions.

And Berry's music has remained on tour extraterrestrially. Johnny B. Goode is on golden records within the Voyager I and II spacecraft, launched in 1977 and awaiting discovery.

New York Times News Service