Chuck Berry, who died Saturday at 90, was one of the architects of rock ’n’ roll, as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. More than any artist of the 1950s, his songs exploded with imagery that saw rock ’n’ roll not just as a fad but as the future — a vision of freedom that transcended generation and race.
Berry’s opening solo on “Johnny B. Goode” blared reveille for subsequent generations of rockers. Every rock guitarist since is in his debt. In addition, Berry wrote and sang at least two dozen rock ’n’ roll classics, including “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Back in the U.S.A.,” many of them recorded at Chicago’s Chess Studios in the 1950s and ’60s and later covered by countless artists, including the Beatles, Beach Boys and Rolling Stones.
“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry,"' John Lennon once said.
Berry was one of rock ’n’ roll’s defining figures and one of its most notorious — he was imprisoned three times over his life for various offenses.
St. Charles County police in Missouri said officers responded to a medical emergency on Buckner Road about 12:40 p.m. Saturday. Inside the home, they “observed an unresponsive man" and immediately administered lifesaving techniques. Berry was pronounced dead at 1:26 p.m. The department released a statement confirming “the death of Charles Edward Anderson Berry Sr., better known as legendary musician Chuck Berry.”
Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry in St. Louis in 1926, Berry grew up singing in church and listening to blues and country music on the radio. An admirer of Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker and Nat “King” Cole, Berry began playing guitar in high school. As a teenager, he was sent to a reformatory after being convicted of attempted robbery. He moonlighted as a beautician in St. Louis and worked on an auto assembly line to support his family. While in his 20s, he led a three-piece blues group during regular weekend gigs.
Berry developed a sound that synthesized genres and created the most popular template for rock ’n’ roll: a small, guitar-led combo performing original songs. A half-century before, country guitarists borrowed riffs and runs from blues performers. Berry flipped the formula; he was essentially a country-music guitarist who added blues inflections and a faster rhythm-and-blues beat. Plus, he played electric guitar, and the amplification enabled him to simulate the sound of two or three guitars playing at once. He thickened the sound by employing a two-string technique, sliding along the frets and bending them to create enormous power and drive. His tone evoked a trumpet.
Berry’s staccato-laced rhythmic drive also derived from swing jazz and the ebullient boogie-woogie played by another St. Louis musician, pianist Johnnie Johnson, who would become his often-unsung collaborator.
Johnson would sue Berry in 2000 for songwriting credit on more than 50 songs, but the claim was dismissed because a judge determined too much time had passed since the songs were written. Together, they played counterpoint melodies and solos that raised the excitement level of countless classic songs, with Johnson’s strong left hand and Berry’s hard strumming beefing up the rhythmic pulse.
Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who acknowledged that his own rhythm-guitar style was based on Berry’s technique, said the guitarist “always was the epitome of rhythm and blues playing, rock and roll playing. It was beautiful, effortless, and his timing was perfection. He is rhythm supreme.”
The Berry-Johnson partnership was forged on New Year’s Eve 1952, when the guitarist was enlisted as a last-minute replacement for an ailing saxophone player in the Johnnie Johnson Trio in East St. Louis. Berry became a regular in the well-established band, and soon became the star attraction with a style that included his signature “duck walk,” skipping across the stage in a half-crouch while playing his guitar.
“Every weekend, they’d be looking for Chuck,” Johnson told the Tribune in a 1992 interview. “When he’d play that guitar, the people would form a circle and square dance. Chuck did this song from the Grand Old Opry, ‘Ida Red,’ and the people loved it.”
It must have been startling to see a crowd of urban blacks dancing steps associated with rural whites, but such was the genre-blurring alchemy Berry achieved. In addition, his clear, precise diction as a vocalist was a departure from the wild, shouting style associated with the so-called race music of the day.
“A lot of places we played, they thought Chuck was white until they got a look at him,” Johnson said.
Even so, Berry came to Chicago in spring 1955 determined to become the next Muddy Waters. On hearing Berry’s guitar playing, Waters was impressed enough to introduce him to Leonard Chess, co-founder of Chess Records, who encouraged the handsome, articulate stranger with the big hollow-body guitar to make a demo tape.
The tape included Berry’s bid for blues stardom, the slow, sensual “Wee Wee Hours,” with a lavish Johnson piano line. But Chess much preferred another song on the tape, “Ida Red,” an old country song that Berry juiced up with comically exuberant boy-chases-girl lyrics involving a Cadillac Coupe DeVille and a V-8 Ford.
“The big beat, cars and young love,” Leonard Chess later said. “It was a trend and we jumped on it.”
Chess liked the song’s upbeat tempo and saw it as a way for his blues label to break into the teenage pop market. He was right. By Aug. 20 of that year, the song he retitled “Maybellene” was the No. 5 pop record in the country.
The song was as distinctive lyrically as it was musically. In the first line of his first hit, Berry coined the term “motorvatin’,” as if he were bent on reinventing the English language even as he invented rock ’n’ roll. The longtime critic Robert Christgau called him “the greatest rock lyricist this side of Bob Dylan.” Narratives populated with images of cars, girls and school brimmed with humor and underdog charm.
At a time when most grown-ups sneered at rock ’n’ roll as mere juvenilia, Berry invested it with poetic power. Rock ’n’ roll, in his telling, was more than just a passing fad, “kids music” that would be dismissed and forgotten in a year or two. In the vision laid out in Berry songs from “Roll Over Beethoven” to “Back in the U.S.A.,” rock ’n’ roll was a world of endless possibility, a promised land where even a poor black kid could be a star.
His lyrics invariably identified with teenagers in their endless struggle with adult authority, and championed the idea that fun was just as much a part of growing up as preparing to be an adult. But he also infiltrated the charts with seemingly upbeat songs that painted subtle portraits of racism (“Brown Eyed Handsome Man”) and satirized the workday runaround (“Too Much Monkey Business”).
He also celebrated his newborn sound and its break from the past. As an African-American who had his fill of the status quo, there was double-edged meaning when he sang, “Hail, hail rock ’n’ roll / Deliver me from the days of old.”
The narrators and protagonists in his songs were inevitably thinly veiled alter egos, never more so than “Johnny B. Goode,” the little country boy “who could play his guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell.” He also demonstrated a feel for Latin music in “Havana Moon,” doo-wop in “Almost Grown” and deep blues in “Childhood Sweetheart.” From 1955 to 1959 he had nine Top 40 hits, an African-American in his 30s who embodied the yearning, joy and frustrations of a largely white, teenage audience.
But legal troubles derailed his career at its peak. Two controversial, racially tinged trials in which Berry was accused of transporting an underage girl across state lines in violation of the Mann Act (prohibiting white slavery and the interstate transport of females for “immoral purposes”) ended with the singer serving a year and a half in prison.
When he was released in 1963, Berry found his songs as popular as ever, thanks to covers by the Beatles, Stones and Beach Boys. His chart successes slowed to a trickle, even as he recorded classic songs such as “Memphis,” a poignant portrait of a divorced father looking to reunite with his young daughter.
He finally scored his first No. 1 single in 1972, albeit with one of his most trivial songs, the smutty “My Ding-A-Ling,” while substantive songs such as “Tulane” and “Have Mercy Judge,” which loosely chronicled his misadventures with the law, were largely overlooked.
Berry’s last studio album arrived in 1979, but he maintained a robust touring schedule, demanding a hefty fee upfront in cash. His cash-and-carry routine made him a target of Internal Revenue Service investigators, who charged him with tax evasion in 1979. Berry pleaded guilty and served four months in prison.
He got into further legal trouble in 1990 when he was sued over allegations that he planted a video camera in the women’s bathroom at a restaurant he owned in Missouri. He settled a class action suit out of court with 59 accusers for a reported $1.2 million. A police raid at his home turned up marijuana and the bathroom videotapes, including one allegedly showing a minor. Berry pleaded guilty to misdemeanor drug possession and was given a six-month suspended jail sentence and probation.
Berry the stage performer also had a checkered history. He played monthly shows at his hometown club Blueberry Hill from 1996 to 2014 that could be galvanizing. But he could also come off as petulant in his travels, voicing his displeasure with the pickup bands hired to perform with him around the world and cutting shows short.
The heavy road schedule eventually took its toll. At a Jan. 1, 2011, concert at the Congress Theater in Chicago, he collapsed after about an hour onstage and had to be escorted off, suffering from exhaustion.
Berry’s place in rock history was already ensured. He was among the first musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and the next year he was celebrated in a Taylor Hackford documentary, “Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll,” with acolytes such as Richards, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Robert Cray and Linda Ronstadt paying homage. He is at best a reluctant and often a surly participant in the party captured on film, as if carrying decades of accumulated bitterness for various insults and indignities, both real and imagined.
Here was an artist on intimate terms with various forms of imprisonment, both racial and legal, and music was his way of breaking the shackles. Little wonder he provided the movie — and by extension, his life — with its cornerstone statement: “Rock ’n’ roll … it’s freedom.”
He was to release his final album, simply titled “Chuck Berry,” in 2017.
Essential Chuck Berry recordings:
- “Chuck Berry is on Top” (1959): Berry at the top of his fame, a hits-packed collection that breezes by in less than 30 minutes with a few fascinating side trips – check out his pedal steel playing on “Blues for Hawaiians.”
- “St. Louis to Liverpool” (1964): The comeback disc after Berry’s prison term derailed his career finds the rocker in top form, with instrumentals (“Night Beat”) and expressive blues (“Things I Used to Do”) complementing the likes of “Nadine” and “No Particular Place to Go.”
- “The Great Twenty-Eight” (1982): The best single-disc overview of Berry’s career, every song a classic.
- “The Chess Box” (1988): This three-CD set not only collects the hits and other essentials from his historic sessions for the Chicago label, it adds sweep to his legacy by investigating worthwhile detours and lesser-known tracks.