Rock 'N' Roll Icon Chuck Berry Dies at 90

Chuck Berry, pioneer of rock and roll, guitar legend, seminal rock songwriter, and arguably the best rock showman of the past 60 years, died today in suburban Saint Louis, MO. He was 90 years old.

News of Berry's death was confirmed by the St. Charles County Police Department via their Facebook page.

Unlike most celebrities, Charles “Chuck” Edward Anderson Berry kept Saint Louis, the city where he was born, as his lifelong home. The home where he lived in Saint Louis from 1950 to 1959, and wrote “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Sumner High School, where he first performed as a young teenager, in a middle-class, segregated neighborhood of Saint Louis, is only a few miles from Blueberry Hill, a venue he played regularly over the years.

His divergent experiences in that Saint Louis high school would characterize the rest of his life. As a freshman, he led a band as their singer and decided he needed to learn to play guitar. He took lessons from friends and listened closely to guitar players he admired, beginning a lifetime of study and practice to support his performances.

As a senior, he and a few friends went on a crime spree stealing cars and robbing people at gunpoint, which he always downplayed as pranks he pulled -- with “a broken gun that wouldn’t even fire.”

However serious, this episode landed Berry in a detention center from 1944 to 1947. During his incarceration, he started a singing group that was good enough to be allowed to leave the grounds to perform.

For Berry’s entire career, his reputation swung between charismatic music legend – considered by many to be the father of the rock ‘n’ roll – to mean-spirited criminal. He did time for crimes from tax evasion, to assaulting a woman and putting her in the hospital, but most notoriously for violations of the Mann Act, which made it a felony to engage in interstate or foreign commerce transport of "any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose."

However nefarious, Berry’s crimes would not overshadow his achievements as a guitar innovator, as one of the creators of the style and sound of rock ‘n’ roll, and most of all, as an outstanding entertainer.

“When Chuck started with me, he didn't know but 12 songs all the way through and couldn't play the guitar that well,” said Johnnie Johnson, Berry’s life-long songwriting collaborator and bandmate in his biography by Travis Fitzpatrick. “I've seen Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Rolling Stones. Ain't none of them can hold a crowd like Chuck. That's his talent. Chuck Berry is an entertainer.”

His inspirations came from his love of a variety of musical styles and performers. He studied the guitar playing and performance style of T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters. He idolized Nat King Cole to the point where, even when he was wildly famous himself, he could not bring himself to say hello to Cole when he passed him on the street.

He felt Cole’s distinct diction allowed him to be accessible to a white audience, at a time when most fans and musicians were as segregated as their neighborhoods, and incorporated that same diction into his own singing.

When he began to play with the piano player Johnnie Johnson, they played blues and ballads, which is what their mostly black audience expected, but he privately taught himself all of the country standards at a time when the genre’s stars and fans were solidly white. He risked playing some of the country tunes to his black audience, with the Johnnie Johnson Trio, and heard them laugh and call him “that black hillbilly,” but after they stopped laughing, they couldn’t resist dancing to it.

It was hard work, inspiration, talent, savvy and perhaps a stroke of genius that allowed Berry to write “Maybelline,” the first song that characterized his original styling of early rock ‘n’ roll. He based it on a country fiddle song, “Ida Red,” added a beat derived from Bill Haley and the Comets and wrote quirky lyrics that had a wit and personality to them that appealed to teenagers.

He gained entrée to Chess Records, through a meeting with his hero Muddy Waters, and put out “Maybelline” as a single. It reached no. 1 on Billboard’s R & B chart and crossed over into the pop charts, too, rising to no. 5. By the end of 1955, it had sold a million copies.

By crafting vivid songs with complex riffs on his electric guitar, like “Maybelline,” it could be said without hyperbole that Berry influenced nearly every rock musician since the 1960s.

His standard gear was a Gibson ES-350 and a Gibson ES-355, and in his performance contracts he always demanded the venue provide a Fender Bassman amplifier. If one was not provided, he demanded $2,000 up front from the venue. He would meticulously write his performance contracts, stipulating exactly how long he would perform. He would begin the minute he had agreed upon and end when the time he had allotted to play was over. He did not play encores.

After “Maybelline,” he had hits with "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" in 1956, "Rock and Roll Music" in 1957, "Johnny B. Goode" in 1958 and "Nadine" in 1964.

His influence has been loudly proclaimed by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, among countless others. John Lennon said, “If you had to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it “Chuck Berry.”

Perhaps Chuck Berry will never be forgotten, since “Johnny B. Goode” was included as the only rock song on the golden records aboard the Voyager Spacecraft, launched in 1977 and still traveling into space, intended as part of a collection of news, books, art and music for any intelligent life or future humans to stumble upon and learn about human culture on Earth.

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