Chuck Berry, rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, dead at 90

Chuck Berry, the singer, songwriter and guitarist who defined rock music with his impeccably twangy hits “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Memphis,” “My Ding-a-Ling” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” has died. He was 90.

The singer/songwriter, died Saturday afternoon, police in St. Charles County, Missouri, confirmed.

The cause of death was not revealed, but the police department posted the following on Facebook:

St. Charles County police responded to a medical emergency on Buckner Road at approximately 12:40 p.m. on Saturday, March 18. Inside the home, first responders observed an unresponsive man and immediately administered lifesaving techniques.

Unfortunately, the 90-year-old man could not be revived and was pronounced deceased at 1:26 p.m.

The St. Charles County Police Department sadly confirms the death of Charles Edward Anderson Berry Sr., better known as legendary musician Chuck Berry.

During his 60-plus years in show business, Berry in 1986 became one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He entered The Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame in ’85 and that year also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Berry wrote and recorded songs that became standards that every garage band and fledgling guitarist had to learn if they wanted to enter the rock ‘n’ roll fellowship.

CNN noted that his influence touched some of the world’s most prominent musicians:

Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones idolized him. Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys copied him. Bob Seger, recognizing Berry’s far-reaching influence, sang “All of Chuck’s children are out there playing his licks” in “Rock and Roll Never Forgets.”

“The poet laureate of rock and roll,” his biography on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says.
But perhaps John Lennon put it most succinctly. “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.'”

Berry refined and developed rhythm and blues into major elements that made rock and roll distinctive, with lyrics focusing on teen life and consumerism, featuring guitar solos and showmanship that were a major influence on subsequent rock music.

Born into a middle-class African-American family in St. Louis, Missouri, Berry had an interest in music from an early age and gave his first public performance at Sumner High School.

While still a high school student, he was convicted of armed robbery and was sent to a reformatory, where he was held from 1944 to 1947. After his release, Berry settled into married life and worked at an automobile assembly plant.

Berry claimed on The Tonight Show he was influenced primarily by 1940s swing artist Louis Jordan.

Rock and roll legend Chuck Berry poses for a portrait holding his Gibson hollowbody electric guitar in circa 1958. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

By the end of the 1950s, Berry was an established star with several hit records and film appearances and a lucrative touring career. He had also established his own St. Louis nightclub, Berry’s Club Bandstand. But in January 1962, he was sentenced to three years in prison for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for an immoral purpose.

After his release in 1963, Berry had more hits in the mid-1960s, including “No Particular Place to Go,” “You Never Can Tell,” and “Nadine.”

By the mid-1970s, he was more in demand as a live performer, playing his past hits with local backup bands of variable quality. His classic “Johnny B. Goode” was included on the golden record of Earth Sounds and Music launched with Voyager in 1977.

Berry was among the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its opening in 1986; he was cited for having “laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance.”

Berry is included in several of Rolling Stone magazine’s “greatest of all time” lists; he was ranked fifth on its 2004 list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Berry’s 1979 studio record Rock It would be his last studio album for 38 years, but he toured on the strength of his earlier successes for many years. Carrying only his Gibson guitar, he could hire a band that already knew his music no matter where he went.

Among the many bandleaders performing a backup role with Berry were Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller when each was just starting his career.

Springsteen said in the documentary film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll that Berry did not give the band a set list, expected the musicians to follow his lead after each guitar intro, and Berry neither spoke to nor thanked the band after the show. The film documented a concert performed by Eric Clapton, Etta James, Julian Lennon, Robert Cray and Linda Ronstadt, among others in celebration of Berry’s sixtieth birthday, which was organized by Keith Richards.

At the request of Jimmy Carter, Berry performed at the White House on June 1, 1979, the same year, facing criminal sanction for the third time, Berry pled guilty to tax evasion and was sentenced to 120 days in prison and 1,000 hours of community service, which he fulfilled performing benefit concerts.

Berry’s touring style, traveling the “oldies” circuit and often being paid in cash by local promoters, added ammunition to the Internal Revenue Service’s accusations that he had evaded income taxes.

Berry continued to play 70 to 100 one-nighters per year in the 1980s, still traveling solo and requiring a local band to back him at each stop. Springsteen backed Berry again when he appeared at the concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.

In the late 1980s, Berry bought The Southern Air, a restaurant in Wentzville, Missouri.

In 1990, he was sued by several women who claimed that he had installed a video camera in the ladies’ bathroom. Berry claimed that he had the camera installed to catch a worker who he suspected of stealing from the restaurant, but he opted for a class action settlement with 59 women that biographer, Bruce Pegg, estimated to cost more than $1.2 million plus legal fees.

Reportedly, a police raid on his house found videotapes of women using the restroom, including one who was a minor. Also found in the raid were 62 grams of marijuana.

Felony drug and child-abuse charges were filed, but to avoid the child-abuse charges, Berry agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor possession of marijuana. He was given a six-month suspended jail sentence, two years’ unsupervised probation and was ordered to donate $5,000 to a local hospital.

In 2008, Berry toured Europe, with stops in Sweden, Norway, Finland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Ireland, Switzerland, Poland and Spain, then he played at the Virgin Festival in Baltimore, Maryland.

During a New Year’s Day 2011 concert in Chicago, Berry, suffering from exhaustion, passed out and had to be helped off stage.

Berry lived in Ladue, Missouri, approximately 10 miles west of St. Louis. He regularly performed one Wednesday each month at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar located in the city’s Delmar Loop neighborhood, from 1996 to 2014.

Berry announced on his 90th birthday that his first new record album in 38 years, entitled Chuck, would be released with songs “covering the spectrum from hard-driving rockers to soulful thought-provoking time capsules of a life’s work” dedicated to his wife of 68 years, Themetta Berry, and it features his children, Charles Berry Jr. and Ingrid, on guitar and harmonica.

 


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