Rock and Roll Legend Chuck Berry Dies at 90

Roll over Beethoven and hail, hail rock and roll. Chuck Berry duckwalks into history.

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry,” ex-Beatle John Lennon said before introducing his idol for a performance on the Mike Douglas Show. Berry, the music pioneer who was called “the Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” was found dead Saturday at a residence outside St. Louis. He was 90.

St. Charles County (Missouri) Police department released a statement confirming “the death of Charles Edward Anderson Berry Sr., better known as legendary musician Chuck Berry.”

Berry helped develop rock and roll music in the early 1950s, speeding up blues to a country thump and making his fingers do to strings what horn sections did with their lips. Every guitarist learns the opening riff of “Johnny B. Goode,” with an eye toward playing the title role. Berry recorded his first hit “Maybellene,” at Chicago’s Chess Studios. The home of the blues.

Berry’s songs were covered by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and every garage band in every country. He had to slap the Beach Boys with a restraining order to get them to stop claiming they wrote “Surfin’ USA,” when it was clearly “Sweet Little Sixteen” with a Woodie.

Ad – content continues below

Berry made rock and roll fun, but there were subtle hints of something more than teenage rebellion. Songs like “You Can’t Catch Me” may have found Berry motorvating away from the cops, but even when he escaped to his “Promised Land” he’d be accused of making “Too Much Monkey Business,” even though he was “Almost Grown.” If you listen to tapes of the “Million Dollar Quartet” – Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis jamming on Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” you can hear that they knew what he was saying and appreciated his artful commentary.

Chuck Berry was born Charles Edward Anderson Berry on Oct. 18, 1926, in St. Louis. His neighborhood, “The Ville,” was segregated. Berry’s great-grandparents were slaves. His father was a construction worker and Berry helped him paint houses. A couple car thefts and an armed robbery attempt got Berry sent to reform school for three years, but he learned to cut hair and apply makeup. He married Themetta Suggs in 1948.

Berry was interested in photography. He didn’t start playing music professionally until he was in his mid-20s. Berry played in local bands like piano player Johnnie Johnson’s group, Sir John’s Trio and went to Chicago in 1955. Blues icon Muddy Waters suggested he bring his bent strings to Chess Records. Chess Records was where Howlin’ Wolf, the Moonglows and Big Bill Broonzy laid tracks. Owner Leonard Chess liked a song Berry wrote called “Ida Red.”

Berry didn’t invent rock and roll. That was probably Ike Turner with “Rocket 88.” But Berry made it rock and roll. “Ida Red” was recorded as “Maybellene” on May 21, 1955, and Berry had his first nationwide hit at 28. Willie Dixon was on bass, Alan Freed and Russ Fratto’s names were on the credits as songwriters.

Berry starred in the Freed jukebox pictures Rock Rock Rock!, Mister Rock and Roll and Go, Johnny, Go! as well as Jazz on a Summer’s Day, 1959 documentary about the Newport Jazz Festival.

Berry was arrested in December 1959 under the Mann Act for transporting an underage woman who briefly worked as a hatcheck girl at Club Bandstand across state lines for immoral purposes.  Berry was tried twice and found guilty both times. He was convicted in 1960. He appealed, but the conviction was upheld at a 1961 trial. Berry was sentenced to three years; he served 20 months and was released from prison in 1964.

Berry’s career never quite took off again. He had some hits in 1964 and 1965, “Nadine,” “No Particular Place to Go,” “You Never Can Tell” and “Promised Land.” He was one of the artists in the 1964 concert film The TAMI Show.

Ad – content continues below

Berry’s only number one hit “My Ding-a-Ling” was recorded live in London in 1972 for the The London Chuck Berry Sessions album.Join Amazon Prime – Watch Thousands of Movies & TV Shows Anytime – Start Free Trial Now