The singer/songwriter, whose classic “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen by Carl Sagan to be included on the golden record of Earth Sounds and Music launched with Voyager in 1977, died Saturday afternoon, St. Charles County Police Department confirmed. The cause of death was not revealed.
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.
He performed in 1979 for President Jimmy Carter at the White House, landed at No. 6 on Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” and trademarked his stage showmanship with his famous “duck walk.”
John Lennon once said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’” He paved the way for such music legends as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Band, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, AC/DC, Sex Pistols and Jerry Lee Lewis, among many others.
Muddy Waters, Berry’s idol and musical influence, gave him some constructive backstage advice: contact Leonard Chess. Chicago-based Chess Records, primarily a blues label run by Polish brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, had a series of transplanted blues artists on its roster, including Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker.
The Chess brothers signed Berry in 1955 and produced and released his first single, “Maybellene,” an adaption of the Bob Wills song “Ida Red.” It sold more than a million copies, reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts and hit No. 5 on the Pop charts, allowing Berry to build crossover appeal beyond the R&B audience.
“Maybellene” blended hillbilly licks and high-spirited blues riffs, ultimately creating the signature sound that pioneered the rock revolution. The lyrics for the song had narrative swagger, reflecting the spirit of teenage angst depicting fast cars, drag races and the story of an unfaithful girl as its main themes.
He explained his appeal to adolescents across different cultural backgrounds: “Everything I wrote about wasn’t about me but [was about] the people listening.” He had a way of identifying what people wanted to express, but weren’t able to, during this segregated time.
Berry, the fourth of six children, was born on Oct. 18, 1926, as Charles Edward Anderson. He was raised in St. Louis in a middle-class black neighborhood. His father Henry was a contractor and his mother Martha a school principal.
Berry married Themetta Suggs in 1948 and had four children with her. He supported his family by becoming a factory worker, janitor and cosmetologist before pounding the pavement in the club circuit to earn extra cash. He partnered with pianist Johnnie Johnson, joining his group Sir John’s Trio, which later became known as the Chuck Berry Combo.
His debut album, After School Session, produced by the Chess brothers, featured a variety of musicians including Johnson, Ebby Hardy, Jimmy Rogers, Willie Dixon, Otis Spann and Fred Below. The effort was tailored toward a youthful market featuring comedic cut-up lyrics, rhythmically intricate guitar parts and stand-alone solos in effortless anthems like “School Days,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Wee Wee Hours,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Thirty Days.”
Keith Richards of the Stones, a big fan, said, “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!”