Chuck Berry Dies at Age 90
Rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry, famous for writing and recording songs such early rock classics as “Johnny B. Goode,” “Maybellene” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” was found dead earlier today at a residence outside St. Louis, Missouri.
UPDATE: TMZ is reporting that Berry died of natural causes, and there will be no autopsy. But, as the site notes, “various diseases would still classify the cause of death as ‘natural.'”
Local law enforcement “responded to a medical emergency on Buckner Road at approximately 12:40 p.m. today (Saturday, March 18),” the St. Charles County police said in a statement. “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 beautiful thing about Chuck Berry’s playing was it had such an effortless swing,” Keith Richards said in his autobiography, Life. “None of this sweating and grinding away and grimacing – just pure, effortless swing, like a lion.” John Lennon once memorably quipped: “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”
His music was – quite literally – out of this world: “Johnny B. Goode” was included on an album called “Music from Earth” chosen by by Carl Sagan to launched on the Voyager mission in 1977. Berry was, of course, one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a year after he received Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award and joined the Blues Hall of Fame.
That last honor spoke to Berry’s early roots on Chess Records. Muddy Waters, a key early idol, encouraged Berry to contact the Chicago-based label, known for a roster of blues artists that included Howlin’ Holf, Willie Dixon and others. They signed him in 1955, and Berry’s culture-changing, million-selling debut single “Maybellene” followed. A No. 1 R&B hit, it also crossed over to reach No. 5 on the Billboard pop charts.
That blend of country twang and blues gumption became a blueprint for rock ‘n’ roll. “Chuck Berry always was the epitome of rhythm and blues playing, rock ’n’ roll playing,” Richards once enthused. “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!”
But Berry was more than simply a musical pioneer. He remains one of rock’s true poets, something that’s all the more striking when you consider that era’s often-strikingly average lyrics. His characters simply sprang to life on those records, and they connected with a broad cross section of teens – despite emerging in remarkably segregated times.
That was the power of rock, and it seemed Berry – who became a star when he was far more mature than most rockers – expertly wielded it on every one of those early 45s.
“The lyrics (of the early popular songs) were not today, not right now (like rock ‘n’ roll),” Berry once told the Chicago Tribune. “Everybody went to school. I directed my music to the teen-agers. I was 30 years old when I did ‘Maybellene.’ My school days had long been over when I did ‘School Day,’ but I was thinking of them. (Teen-agers) were the ones I was singing to, so why not sing lyrics of their life?”
Chuck Berry was born on Oct. 18, 1926 as the the fourth of six children, and raised in St. Louis as Charles Edward Anderson. He married Themetta Suggs in 1948, and they had four children together. In those early, pre-fame years, he worked at a series of every-day jobs to make ends meet, including such unlikely positions as janitor and cosmetologist. A meeting with pianist Johnnie Johnson changed everything. Berry joined his group, then Sir John’s Trio evolved into the Chuck Berry Combo. A star was born.
His early albums featured a slew of blues legends, including Dixon, Otis Spann and Jimmy Rogers. Berry would go on to score nine Billboard Top 20 hits in the ’50s, as rock became a cultural force. Legal issues threatened to derail his career into the next decade, but Berry was hardly forgotten. Besides the Beatles and Stones, the Beach Boys also based “Surfin’ U.S.A.” on Berry’s song “Sweet Little Sixteen.” By the early ’70s, he was ready to reclaim his rock throne. The London Chuck Berry Sessions, featuring members of the Faces, soared to No. 8 on the charts on the strength of his novelty hit “My Ding-a-Ling.”
Bruce Springsteen made clear his debt by performing during Berry’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Richards, who ultimately emerged as perhaps Berry’s most famous fan, played a key role in the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, which celebrated Berry’s 60th birthday.
By the 2010s, however, Berry was forced to admit that he’d slowed down – though he continued working until almost the very end. In fact, a new album – simply entitled Chuck – is set to arrive in 2017. It was to be Berry’s first studio project since Rock It in 1979. More recently, he had battled pneumonia, though a cause of death was not immediately released.
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