Singer-songwriter-guitarist Chuck Berry, the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer who established the form and the themes of the music with his slyly funny, rhythmically propulsive ’50s hits, such as “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode,” has died in Missouri. He was 90.
St. Charles County police responded to a call placed at around 12:40 p.m. local time on Saturday. They arrived on the scene where Berry was found unresponsive. He was pronounced dead at 1:26 p.m., according to the police department.
Berry hammered out the then-nascent sound’s groundwork in a series of self-penned singles for the Chicago R&B label Chess Records that successfully crossed over into the pop mainstream.
The tunes showcased Berry’s droll singing, inventive guitar licks and acute eye and ear for the nuances of teenage life. In a matter of years, his repertoire would be adopted by such British acolytes as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones; California band the Beach Boys surrendered some of the copyright for its 1963 hit “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” which shamelessly copped the melody of Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” without credit.
“One of my big lights has gone out,” Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards said via Twitter on Saturday. Richards befriended Berry in the 1960s and was the architect of the 60th birthday tribute concert featured in Taylor Hackford’s 1987 Berry documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Like early contemporaries Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, Berry put his music over with a showman’s flair. The pompadoured, mustachioed musician’s “duck walk” — a crouched, head-bobbing march across the stage — was an onstage trademark that became familiar to viewers of the ’50s exploitation films like “Rock, Rock, Rock!” and “Go, Johnny, Go!” in which he starred.
Berry began playing music professionally in the early ’50s. His instrumental style was influenced by the work of ’40s R&B star Louis Jordan’s guitarist Carl Hogan, jazz picker Charlie Christian and bluesman T-Bone Walker.
He secured a crucial gig after a fill-in date on New Year’s Eve 1952 with the Sir John Trio, a combo led by pianist Johnnie Johnson at East St. Louis’ Cosmopolitan Club. The flashy, assertive Berry soon took over leadership of the group; Johnson stayed on to take a key instrumental and compositional role in Berry’s band during the ’50s (he unsuccessfully sued Berry in 2000, claiming co-authorship of some of Berry’s hit songs).
In spring 1955, Berry went to Chicago, then a regional recording hub, in search of a record deal. Rejected by Vee Jay, the local black-run independent, he shopped his music to Chess with the support of Muddy Waters, one of the label’s blues stars.
Berry’s first session for the company produced his breakthrough hit: a rewrite of an antique country song previously recorded in 1938 by Bob Wills, revved up and retitled in a play on the name of a popular mascara brand. “Maybellene,” a car-chase saga with a bounding two-step rhythm and a super-heated guitar sound, vaulted to No. 1 on the R&B chart and crossed to No. 5 on the pop list in the summer of 1955.
Despite the avid support of New York DJ Alan Freed (reputedly a major recipient of under-the-table payola from Chess), Berry’s more adult-themed songs like “Thirty Days” and “No Money Down” found little immediate chart favor. But the top-30 arrival of the rock ‘n’ roll anthem “Roll Over Beethoven” in 1956 kicked off a run of songs that became classics of the genre.
His 1957-59 hits included “School Day” (No. 3, pop, No. 1 R&B), “Rock & Roll Music” (No. 8 pop, No. 6 R&B), “Sweet Little Sixteen” (No. 2 pop, No. 1 R&B), “Johnny B. Goode” (No. 8 pop, No. 2 R&B), “Carol” (No. 18 pop, No. 9 R&B) and “Almost Grown” (No. 32 pop, No. 3 R&B). Even less popular numbers of the period such as “Sweet Little Rock and Roller,” “Back in the U.S.A.” and the Christmas song “Run Run Rudolph” made their way into the rock canon.
As a youth, Berry appeared destined for a life of crime. Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry, he was raised in segregated St. Louis’ Ville neighborhood, where he was an indifferent student. At 18, he went on an armed robbery spree with two friends; they were arrested in a stolen car, and Berry was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
During a three-year stint in a Missouri juvenile facility, he sang in a gospel group and played jump blues in a prison band. On his release in 1947, he enrolled in a beauty college; the following year, he wed Themetta Suggs. He supported his family with a series of factory, custodial and hairdressing jobs before embarking on his hugely successful music career in the 1950s.
However, Berry’s career went off the rails in 1961, when he was convicted for violation of the federal Mann Act prohibiting the transportation of a minor across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Busted for employing an underage Texas prostitute in his St. Louis club, he received a three-year jail sentence.
Released in 1964, Berry waxed a number of minor yet indelible hits at Chess — “Nadine,” “No Particular Place to Go,” “You Never Can Tell,” “Promised Land.” By this time, the stars of the British Invasion had taken his repertoire as their own: the Beatles cut “Rock and Roll Music” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” while the Stones essayed “Come On,” “Carol,” “You Can’t Catch Me” and “Around and Around.” A host of other rock musicians would follow suit with their own covers of his durable material.
In 1966, Berry ankled Chess for Mercury Records, where he recut many of his old hits without improvement or notable success. He began a long campaign of one-nighters during this period, traveling solo with his Gibson from town to town, playing for cash upfront with a succession of pick-up bands. (Bruce Springsteen supported Berry at one New Jersey date.)
Berry returned to Chess in 1968. During this stay, he enjoyed his biggest pop hit — ironically, with a song written by someone else. An edit of a 12-minute concert version of “My Ding-a-Ling,” a salacious sing-along recorded as “Little Girl Ding-a-Ling” in 1952 by New Orleans musician Dave Bartholomew, became his only No. 1 pop single.
In the early ’70s, Berry cashed in on the nostalgic rock ’n’ roll revival of the period by headlining promoter Richard Nader’s package shows featuring the music’s pathfinding stars. His cash-only policy won him scrutiny from the Internal Revenue Service, and in 1979 — not long after he completed his final album “Rockit” for Atlantic Records — he was sentenced to three months in federal prison for evading taxes on undeclared 1973 income.
Berry’s latter-day life as an obstreperous rock icon was captured in Taylor Hackford’s 1987 feature “Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll,” a record of an all-star 1986 60th-birthday concert at St. Louis’ Fox Theater at which Richards served as musical director (and the star’s whipping boy). Berry published his idiosyncratic and not entirely candid memoir “The Autobiography” in 1987.
Eschewing the studio for the last three decades of his life, Berry scratched his musical itch by playing dates at his hometown club BlueBerry Hill and paid the bills with gigs at rock and blues festivals at home and abroad. The star was hard to handle, and the shows were carelessly played more often than not, but his legend saw him through professionally until the end of his life. Berry collapsed on stage in the middle of a New Year’s Day 2011 concert at Chicago’s Congress Theater.
He was an inaugural inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.