One of the founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll music, Chuck Berry, died today (March 18).
St. Charles County, Missouri, police responded to a medical emergency on Buckner Road at approximately 12:40 p.m. First responders found Berry unresponsive and were unable to revive him. Berry was pronounced dead at 1:26 p.m., police said.
Berry was 90. The cause of death has not yet been reported but Berry’s son said that his father had recently battled pneumonia.
He was one of the architects of rock ‘n’ roll, born Charles Edward Anderson Berry on Oct. 18, 1926, in St. Louis, Missouri. A guitarist from his teens, Berry learned a wide swath of styles sitting in with groups around St. Louis before he joined the Sir John Trio led by pianist Johnnie Johnson (whose style and, some say, melodies became part of Berry’s music). He drew attention in the combo due to his animated performing style and the seeming anomaly of singing white hillbilly music with the jazz/R&B group, which upped its popularity and drew white fans to their gigs.
In May 1955 Berry visited Chicago, and after seeing a show by Muddy Waters asked the bluesman how he could start making records. Waters referred Berry to Leonard Chess of Chess Records. On May 21, Berry recorded his adaptation of the Western swing song “Ida Red’ as “Maybellene” at Chess Studios. It became a Top 5 pop single, went #1 R&B and sold a million copies. From 1956-60, he recorded a number of chart singles that codified a substantial part of the rock ‘n’ roll style and ethos, marked by rollicking rhythms, clever wordplay and his snappy guitar lines that celebrated rock music (“Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music,” “Let It Rock”), teenage life (“School Day,” “Sweet Little Sixteen”) and prosperous 1950s America (“Back In The U.S.A.”) as well as, in a way, his own growing mythology (“Johnny B. Goode,” “You Can’t Catch Me”).
Berry influenced countless musicians, from the Beatles, Rolling Stones and the Kinks to the Grateful Dead, the Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Springsteen. Bob Dylan has acknowledged Berry as an influential lyricist and John Lennon once famously said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”
Keith Richards was once quoted as saying, “Chuck Berry always was the epitome of rhythm and blues playing, rock ’n’ roll playing. It was beautiful and effortless, and his timing was perfection. He is rhythm supreme. He plays that lovely double-string stuff, which I got down a long time ago but I’m still getting the hang of. Later I realized why he played that way because of the sheer physical size of the guy. I mean, he makes one of those big Gibsons look like a ukulele!” When he inducted Berry into the Rock Hall, Richards said, “I’ve stolen every lick he ever played.”
Related: Leonard Chess, the man who signed Chuck Berry, dies
Berry was among the first 10 artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Blues Hall of Fame in 1985. His songs have been recorded by countless artists. Hear some of the best in our story 17 Classic Chuck Berry Covers.
Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen by Carl Sagan to be included on the golden record of Earth Sounds and Music launched with the Voyager spacecraft in 1977.
One of Berry’s trademarks was his so-called “duck walk” across the stage. (See photo at right.)
Berry received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984, was recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2000 and was presented with Sweden’s prestigious Polar Music Prize in 2014.
Rolling Stone named him the #6 greatest guitarist of all time.
Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ roll!
Watch Berry mime “Oh Baby Doll” in the ’50s
Watch the trailer for the 1987 concert film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll
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