Chuck Berry died today (Saturday) in his hometown, St. Louis. He was 90.
The unquestioned father of rock and roll created an enduring legacy of teenaged music which became a songbook for countless musicians, including The Beatles, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. He took the basics of R&B in the 1950s, added some country flavor, his own showmanship and wit and crafted a music that knew no boundaries. John Lennon summed it up best, saying, “If you were going to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.”
Berry was born Charles Edward Anderson Berry in 1926 and grew up in St. Louis.
His hits, all recorded for the Chess label in Chicago, included “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “My Ding-a-Ling.”
His film appearances included Go, Johnny, Go; Rock, Rock, Rock; Mr. Rock; and the 1978 documentary American Hot Wax.
Berry’s legal troubles included an armed-robbery conviction as a teen, a jail stint in 1961 for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes, a brief imprisonment in 1979 for tax evasion and accusations in the 1990s from female employees who said he’d videotaped them in bathrooms.
He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985.
Berry was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
Director Taylor Hackford filmed his 60th birthday concert for the 1987 theatrical documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Berry is survived by Themetta “Toddy” Suggs, his wife of over 68 years, and his four children Ingrid Berry-Clay, Chuck Berry Jr., Aloha Isa Lei Berry and Melody Exes Berry.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born on October 18th, 1926, the third of six children of Martha and Henry Berry, a Baptist deacon in St. Louis. His music career began on New Year’s Eve in 1952, when Berry joined a local band called Sir John’s Trio. His showmanship and hillbilly music made him a local star and rival of Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm. He once said, “Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of our country stuff on our predominantly black audience, and some of our black audience began whispering, ‘Who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo?’ After they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed dancing to it.”
The door to a recording career opened after a visit to Chicago at the request of Muddy Waters. During the visit, Berry sought out Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Chess, along with producer Willie Dixon,was impressed with Berry and his upbeat country song, “Ida Red” — later re-named and recorded as “Maybellene.” The single reached number-one on Billboard’s R&B chart and number-five on the pop chart.
He reached the Billboard Top 40 14 times in all, scoring his only number-one in 1972 with a live rendition of the dirty joke song “My Ding-a-Ling.” The classics in his canon, all of which have been covered innumerable times over the past six decades, include “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day,” “Carol,” “You Can’t Catch Me,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Johnny B. Goode.”
During the ‘50s, Berry had cameos in various films, including Rock, Rock, Rock; Mr. Rock and Roll;and Go, Johnny, Go. In 1978, the film American Hot Wax, which told the story of Alan Freed, featured Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, and recounted the riot at one of Berry’s concerts promoted by Freed.
Berry had a number of run-ins with the law. As a teen, he and a few friends were sentenced to 10 years to prison for armed robbery, although he only served three. In 1961, Berry began a three-year term for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes after a young Native American girl working at his Club Bandstand couldn’t produce a birth certificate. In 1979, he went to jail briefly for tax evasion, and during the early 1990s, a few women accused Berry of videotaping them at his Berry Park recording studio and his Wentzville restaurant. Though he eventually settled with all 59 women before a verdict was reached, a police raid on Berry’s home revealed several video tapes of women in the restroom, as well as 62 grams of marijuana. He was subsequently sentenced to six months in jail, as well as two years probation and other fees.
In 1986, Berry was inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1987, published Chuck Berry: The Autobiography. Also in 1987, the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, based on a concert in honor of Berry’s 60th birthday, was released.
In 1985, his trademark duckwalk was copied by Michael J. Fox in the movie Back to the Future.
Berry toured around the world through the tail end of his life, but succumbed to the physical pressures of the life towards the end of his run. The legendary guitarist had to be helped off the stage after passing out from exhaustion during a New Year’s concert in 2011. He was legendary for always demanding payment in full before setting foot on stage and using unrehearsed pickup bands wherever he performed. Countless veteran musicians have stories about the hair-raising experience of backing Chuck in concert.
Berry is survived by Themetta “Toddy” Suggs, his wife of over 50 years, and his four children Ingrid Berry-Clay, Chuck Berry Jr., Aloha Isa Lei Berry and Melody Exes Berry.
Many of the music world’s icons have commented on the death of Chuck Berry at 90 on Saturday:
Mick Jagger issued a trio of tweets to express his thoughts: “I am so sad to hear of Chuck Berry’s passing. I want to thank him for all the inspirational music he gave to us… He lit up our teenage years, and blew life into our dreams of being musicians and performers… His lyrics shone above others and threw a strange light on the American dream. Chuck you were amazing and your music is engraved inside us forever.”
Keith Richards followed by tweeting, “One of my big lights has gone out,” and posting three photos of himself with Berry.
Separately, their band issued these words: “The Rolling Stones are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Chuck Berry. He was a true pioneer of rock’n’roll & a massive influence on us. Chuck was not only a brilliant guitarist, singer and performer, but most importantly, he was a master craftsman as a songwriter. His songs will live forever.”
Bruce Springsteen: “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.”
Brian Wilson: “I am so sad to hear about Chuck Berry passing – a big inspiration! He will be missed by everyone who loves Rock ‘n Roll. Love & Mercy.” Later, he told Rolling Stone, “I was shocked by it and it kind of scared me. I don’t know why it scared me, but it was just a shock.” He says Berry “taught me how to write rock & roll melodies, the way the vocals should go…His lyrics were very, very good.”
Ringo Starr: “Just let me hear some of that rock ‘n’ roll music any old way you use it. I am playing ‘I’m Talking ’bout You.’ God bless Chuck Berry.”
Rod Stewart: “It started with Chuck Berry. He inspired us all. The 1st album I bought was Chuck’s “Live at the Tivoli” and I was never the same.”
John Fogerty: “Great songwriter, great guitar player, great singer. One of a kind. Thank you Mr. Chuck Berry for teaching me how it’s done. Hail, hail Rock and Roll! RIP my friend.”
Elton John: ““The greatest rock & roll songwriter of all time. Thanks for all those wonderful records that will define rock music forever. #RIPChuckBerry”
John Oates: “Chuck Berry was my hero…I wanted to play guitar like him and wanted to write songs like him even though I knew.”
Doobie Brothers: “Chuck Berry was the father of Rock n’ Roll. He was an influence to us all. He will forever be remembered.”
Peter Frampton: “He had a guitar style that influenced so many generations of players. Oh yes and how to write a great RnR song. Rest in peace dear Chuck.”
Gregg Allman: “The first, the best, a friend. Rest In Peace Chuck Berry.”
Billy Idol: “RIP Chuck Berry. Without him Rock n Roll wouldn’t be what it came to be.”
The Doors (Robby Krieger and John Densmore): “#RIP to one of rock ‘n’ roll’s biggest innovators and a huge influence on The Doors, Chuck Berry.”
Alice Cooper: “Everybody in rock ‘n’ noll, from The Beatles to Alice Cooper, owes Chuck Berry. We all cut our teeth on Chuck. I learned to write lyrics listening to Chuck Berry songs. In my opinion, he was the greatest rock lyricist of all time. What I loved about him is that if he couldn’t think of a word he’d just make one up. His songs include words like ‘botheration’, ‘cooleration’. He was the single greatest influence in rock, and there will never, ever, ever be another Chuck Berry. He was a one of a kind!”
Tommy Shaw of Styx: “His music can be found in the DNA of the music of so many artists who grew up listening to him. He could rightfully claim paternity as the father of rock & roll music with all those simple, elegant songs that made you want to do that duck walk with your guitar — but nobody ever did it like him. Now he can have that reunion with his old bandmate Johnnie Johnson and play those songs again like they were brand new.”
Slash: “Heart broken to hear of the passing of Chuck Berry. He was indisputedly the king. A moment of silence is definitely n order. RIP.”
Questlove: “Thou Shall Have No Other Rock Gods Before Him #ChuckBerry rip.”
Rob Zombie: “Hail Hail Rock and Roll! #ripchuckberry”
Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues: “I bumped into Chuck Berry at an airport in the USA in the late 60’s. I was carrying my Gibson 335, which I always took in the cabin with me. He put his Gibson 355 on to the belt to go in the hold. I said “Aren’t you worried it will get smashed?” He said “I’ll just get another one”.”
Keith Urban: “Thank you for the poetry, the passion and the potency! GO JOHNNY GO.”
Lenny Kravitz: “Hail Hail Chuck Berry!!! None of us would have been here without you. Rock on brother!”
Jim Bonfanti of The Raspberries recalls when they backed Chuck Berry at the Cleveland and Columbus Agora (theaters). “It was quite the experience. RIP Chuck.”
George McCrae of “Rock Your Baby” fame, says on Facebook: “RIP Mister Rock and Roll. Chuck Berry, the founding father.”
The Shadows of Knight: “Hail hail rock n roll.. RIP Chuck.”
Former President Barack Obama tweeted: “Chuck Berry rolled over everyone who came before him – and turned up everyone who came after. We’ll miss you, Chuck. Be good.”
Former President Bill Clinton tweeted: “Chuck Berry’s life was a treasure and a triumph, and he’ll never be forgotten.”
Clinton later issued a longer statement: “Hillary and I loved Chuck Berry for as long as we can remember. The man was inseparable from his music – both were utterly original and distinctly American. He made our feet move and our hearts more joyful. And along the way he changed our country and the history of popular music. Chuck played at both my inaugurations and at the White House for my 25th Georgetown reunion, and he never slowed down, which is why his legend grew every time he stepped on stage. His life was a treasure and a triumph, and he’ll never be forgotten. Our hearts go out to his family and his countless friends and fans.”
Darlene Love “We just lost a true rock-n-roll legend and the FIRST singer EVER inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Rest in peace, Chuck! xoxo”
Stephen King: “Chuck Berry died. This breaks my heart, but 90 years old ain’t bad for rock and roll. Johnny B. Goode forever. ‘The Coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale.’ Can’t beat that line!”
Jim Peterik of Survivor and The Ides of March: “I grew up to his songs. They had a raw honesty that spoke to me. Four chords never sounded so sweet, melodic guitar leads that were like songs in themselves. Before I knew what poetry was, his lyrics had a narrative quality, rich with detail, that drew me in.”
Buddy Guy: “Chuck’s genius was an instant thing. By that I mean he’d run into the studio without a word or a guitar lick. Nothing was written down. Then in 10 or 15 minutes, he’d write the song and record it on the spot.”
George Thorogood and the Destroyers: “We are shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of the great Chuck Berry. Chuck was the Father of Rock-N-Roll and a huge influence on us.”
Rush: “Rest in Peace Chuck Berry….one of the original rock and roll guitar legends….thank you for the music!”
Nikki Sixx: “RIP Chuck Berry. Without him Rock n Roll wouldn’t be what it came to be.”
Paul Stanley: “RIP CHUCK BERRY. Truly a cornerstone of all that is, was and will be Rock and Roll. An icon like few others.”
Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid: “Guitar playing. Songwriting. Stagecraft. ALL OF IT. Chuck Berry. To have stood on stage with Mr. Chuck Berry @ApolloTheater is one of the great honors of my life. He gave us EVERYTHING.”
Twisted Sister guitarist Jay Jay French: “Chuck Berry is dead. No words really. The smartest, most creative rock n roller in history. I totally owe my guitar style to him. RIP”
Shinedown guitarist Zach Myers: “Chuck Berry didn’t build this house … Chuck Berry created the things to build the house in the first place.”
Ted Nugent posted a live video of himself performing “Johnny B. Goode” on his Facebook page, and wrote, “If ever there was an end of a monumental era in the history of mankind it happened today with the death of Chuck Berry. No one deserves the title of creator, founding father, Godfather, genius and wizard of rock ‘n’ roll more than his Majesty Chuck Berry. Being so fortunate to be born in 1948 soon after Les Paul electrified the guitar, it was Chuck Berry that showed us the ultimate application to a musical energy and uppity spirit like never before. Thank God I was bodyslammed by this new music and heard my calling loud and clear. There is not a guitar player in the history of the instrument that doesn’t owe Chuck everything for guiding us into that lyrical, grinding cadence of his honky-tonk gone wild and the unprecedented rhythm of his lyrics and singing style. I ascended the mountaintop of rock ‘n’ roll when I was privileged to play bass guitar for Chuck in 1969. His spirit will be with me every time every day when I play my guitar. Godspeed rock ‘n’ roll BloodBrother. RockIn!”
Queen: “Go, go, go Little Queenie…”