ROCK ’N’ ROLL LEGEND CHUCK BERRY, 90, DIES
“Maybellene,” “Johnny B. Goode” among 100-song legacy
Chuck Berry, the perpetual wild man of rock music who helped define its rebellious spirit in the 1950s and was the sly poet laureate of songs about girls, cars, school and even the “any old way you choose it” vitality of the music itself, died Saturday at his home in St. Charles County, Mo. He was 90.
St. Charles County police announced officers responded to a medical emergency at Berry’s home, administered lifesaving techniques but could not revive him.
“While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together,” reads Berry’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
A seminal figure in early rock music, he was all the rarer still for writing, singing and playing his own music. His songs and the boisterous performance standards he set directly influenced the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and later Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger.
In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine named him No. 6 on its list of the greatest guitarists of all time. Berry so embodied the American rock tradition that his recording of “Johnny B. Goode” was included on a disc launched into space on the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1977.
Besides Berry, members of the rock hall of fame’s inaugural class included Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino and the Everly Brothers. Of those he survived, Berry remained the most indefatigable and acclaimed performer, playing concerts all over the world well into his 80s.
Despite John Lennon’s oft-quoted quip — “If you tried to give rock-and-roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’ “— Berry was an unlikely idol for a burgeoning teen subculture that he sang about at the dawn of the rock era.
He was 30, married and the father of two when he made his first recording, “Maybellene” in 1955. The song — a story of a man in a Ford V8 chasing his unfaithful girlfriend in a Cadillac Coupe de Ville — charted No. 1 on Billboard’s rhythm-and-blues chart and No.5 on the pop music charts.
It was soon followed by “Rock and Roll Music” (”it’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it”) and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” whose astute reference to the teen-oriented TV show “American Bandstand” (”Well, they’ll be rockin’ on Bandstand, Philadelphia, P.A.”) helped him connect to adolescent record-buyers.
With his lithe, athletic body, high cheekbones and perfectly pomaded hair, Berry personified the dangerous appeal of rock. He’d grin salaciously and then shoot across the stage, unleashing a staccato burst of bright, blaring guitar notes.
When he went into his signature “duck walk,” his legs seemed to be made of rubber, and his whole body moved with clocklike precision — the visual statement of his music’s kinetic energy.
He once told The Washington Post that he initiated the duck walk at the Brooklyn Paramount theater in 1956, based on a pose he sometimes struck as a child.
“I had nothing else to do during the instrumental part of the song,” he said. “I did it, and here comes the applause. Well, I knew to coin anything that was that entertaining, so I kept it up.”
Berry penned more than 100 songs, the best known of which used carefully crafted rhymes and offered tightly written vignettes about American life.
“Back in the U.S.A.” (1959), later covered by Linda Ronstadt, delighted in an America where “hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day.” And “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)” (1957), written about the over-crowded St. Louis schools of Berry’s youth, became an anthem for bored, restless kids everywhere.
The Beach Boys had a hit record with “Surfin’ USA” (1963), its melody borrowed without credit from “Sweet Little Sixteen.” The Beatles began their first U.S. concert, at the Washington Coliseum, with “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956), whose narrator, in the throes of “the rockin’ pneumonia,” issues the fevered command: “Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news.”
Perhaps the most performed of his songs was “Johnny B. Goode” (1957). Its storyline embodied Berry’s experience as an African-American born into segregation who lived to see “his name in lights:”
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born on Oct. 18, 1926, in St. Louis.
Although his parents and three of his sisters sang in a Baptist choir, Berry’s own youthful tastes gravitated to more secular pop music, including blues singer Muddy Waters, the jump blues saxophonist and singer Louis Jordan, and big bands of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington.
He was 14 when he began performing at parties, but that was interrupted by a threeyear stint in reform school for his role in a bungled armed robbery.
At the urging of Muddy Waters, Berry took his demo tapes to Chess Records. Label owner Leonard Chess was impressed by “Ida May,” a country-and-western-styled tune, and said he would allow Berry to record it if he would change the name to “Maybellene.”
Legendary U.S. rock and roll singer and guitarist Chuck Berry performs in Burgos, Spain Nov. 25, 2007 during European tour. Associated Press file photo