If rock and roll had a founder, it was undoubtedly Chuck Berry, who died last weekend following a medical emergency at his home in Wentzville, Missouri, aged 90.
He was renowned for throwing twangy country music and soulful Mississippi Delta blues into a blender, and creating a new genre that celebrated fast cars, pretty girls and teen angst. This, coupled with Berry's brash self-confidence and bad boy street cred, turned the middle-class African-American artist into a superstar.
He was born Charles Edward Anderson Berry on 18 October 1926 in St Louis, Missouri to a Baptist deacon father and a certified public school principal. He developed an interest in music from an early age and performed his first gig as a student at Sumner High School.
In 1944, while still in high school, Berry was convicted of armed robbery, after he and several friends robbed three shops in Kansas City and then stole a getaway car at gunpoint. While serving time in a reformatory for young men, Berry formed a singing quartet that was so slick and professional the authorities allowed them to perform outside the detention facility.
He was released in 1947 on his 21st birthday and married Thermetta “Toddy” Suggs the following year. She gave birth to a daughter in 1950 and Berry supported his family by doing an assortment of jobs — automobile assembly plant worker, janitor, factory worker and, interestingly, beautician. To earn some extra income to pay off the family home in St Louis, Berry performed at various clubs and honed his on-stage persona, borrowing heavily from blues legend T-Bone Walker and country music, which was the most popular genre at the time among affluent middle-class whites.
In 1955, Berry moved to Chicago and hooked up with legendary bluesman Muddy Waters, who introduced him to Leonard Chess of the iconic Chess Records. Chess had seen the rhythm and blues market shrink and was looking for an artist who could transcend boundaries and move beyond the African-American market. He found it in Berry, whose first hit for Chess was the rollicking anthem 'Maybellene'. It sold a million copies and topped Billboard's rhythm and blues chart.
In 1956, Berry achieved moderate mainstream success with 'Roll Over Beethoven', which reached 29 on the Billboard charts.
The following year, Berry toured with the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and others as well as appearing on television. He scored hit after hit between 1957 to 1959, achieving top ten success with 'School Days', 'Rock and Roll Music' and 'Sweet Little Sixteen' — the melody of which was later appropriated for the Beach Boys' 'Surfin' USA'.
However, it was the anthemic 'Johnny B Goode' that became Berry's trademark tune. A ball tearer rich in guitar riffs, it showcased Berry's brash and self-confident style to perfection.
By the end of the 1950s, Berry was an established star with several hit records, film appearances and a St Louis nightclub called Berry's Club Bandstand to his credit. However. Berry fell foul of the law in 1962, when he was convicted under the Mann Act of transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines. He served a year in prison for this particular peccadillo and never really regained the chart success he had previously enjoyed. That said, Berry released a string of ballsy rock and roll numbers in the 1960s: 'No Particular Place To Go', 'You Never Can Tell' and 'Nadine'.
In the 1970s, Berry was in demand as a nostalgia act and released 'My Ding A Ling', widely regarded as one of the filthiest songs in rock music history.
In 1979, Berry again fell foul of the law when his insistence on being paid in cash for his performances led to a conviction for tax evasion. He served four months in jail and was ordered to perform community service.
In 1986, Berry became one of the first ever artists to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was credited for not only pioneering the rock and roll sound but the rock and roll stance as well. Berry has appeared in various Rolling Stone "best ever” lists and ranked fifth on their "Greatest Artists of All Time” list, released in 2004.
Berry continued to tour until his death and released his final album, 'Chuck', in 2017. It was his first new album in 38 years and he dedicated it to his wife of 68 years, Thermetta Berry.
The police were called to Berry's home on 18 March 2017 following a medical emergency. Berry was unresponsive and declared dead at the scene.
Tributes to Berry credited him for being one of the founders of the genre of rock and roll and highly influential.
“If you don't know every Chuck Berry lick, you can't play rock guitar.”
Bruce Springsteen tweeted:
'Chuck Berry was rock's greatest practitioner, guitarist and the greatest pure rock 'n roll writer who ever lived.'
Chuck Berry was rock's greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock 'n' roll writer who ever lived.— Bruce Springsteen (@springsteen) March 18, 2017
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