Chuck Berry, a music pioneer often called “the Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” was found dead Saturday at a residence outside St. Louis, police in St. Charles County said. He was 90.
The rock and roll star died at his home in Missouri after a “medical emergency” on Saturday at 1.30pm local time (5.40pm GMT), police officials said.
Medics tried to administer “lifesaving techniques” on the singer and guitarist, known for hits including Johnny B Goode and You Never Can Tell, but he could not be revived.
On his 90th birthday in October, Berry announced his first album in 38 years was set to be released in 2017.
At the time, Berry said: “This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy [his wife of 68 years].
“My darlin’ I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”
Titled Chuck, the album was to consist mainly of new material written and produced by Berry.
A St Charles County Police Department spokesperson “sadly” confirmed “the death of Charles Edward Anderson Berry Sr., better known as legendary musician Chuck Berry”.
The statement added: “The family requests privacy during this time of bereavement.”
Berry, whose career spanned seven decades, received a lifetime achievement Grammy in 1984 was among the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its opening in 1986.
Known as the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, Berry influenced scores of modern-day musicians and bands including the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards.
Born in St Louis in October 1926, he attempted to emulate his musical heroes including Nat King Cole and Muddy Waters, according to the biography on his Facebook page.
Rock ‘n’ roll’s founding guitar hero and storyteller defined the music’s joy and rebellion in such classics as “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Roll Over Beethoven.”
Berry’s core repertoire was some three dozen songs, his influence incalculable, from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to virtually any group from garage band to arena act that called itself rock ‘n roll. While Elvis Presley gave rock its libidinous, hip-shaking image, Berry was the auteur, setting the template for a new sound and way of life. Well before the rise of Bob Dylan, Berry wedded social commentary to the beat and rush of popular music.
Berry wrote and recorded songs like “Johnny B. Goode” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” that became standards — songs every garage band and fledgling guitarist had to learn if they wanted to enter the rock ‘n’ roll fellowship.
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 Seger’s “Rock and Roll Never Forgets.”
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 took all-night hamburger stands, brown-eyed handsome men and V-8 Fords and turned them into the stuff of American poetry. By doing so, he gave rise to followers beyond number, bar-band disciples of the electric guitar, who carried his musical message to the far corners of the Earth and even into outer space.
When NASA launched the unmanned Voyager I in 1977, an album was stored on the craft that would explain music on Earth to extraterrestrials. The one rock song included was “Johnny B. Goode.”
The list of Berry’s classics is as well-known as his distinctive, chiming “Chuck Berry riff”: “Maybellene.” “Around and Around.” “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.” “School Days.” “Memphis.” “Nadine.” “No Particular Place to Go.”
They were deceptively simple tunes, many constructed with simple chord progressions and classic verse-chorus-verse formats, but their hearts could be as big as teenage hopes on a Saturday night.
His music even went into outer space. When the two Voyager spacecrafts were launched in 1977, each was accompanied on its journey to the outer reaches of the solar system by a phonograph record that contained sounds of Earth — including “Johnny B. Goode.”
Berry, though, was modest about his influence.
“My view remains that I do not deserve all the reward directed on my account for the accomplishments credited to the rock ‘n’ roll bank of music,” he wrote in his 1987 autobiography.
He had a facility with lyrics others could only envy, words and phrases tossed off with a jazzman’s cool and a surgeon’s precision.
In “You Never Can Tell,” he summed up a newlywed couple’s life in fewer than two dozen words: “They furnished off an apartment with a two-room Roebuck sale / The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale.”
Berry, in his late 20s before his first major hit, crafted lyrics that spoke to the teenagers of the day and remained fresh decades later. “Sweet Little Sixteen” captured rock ‘n’ roll fandom, an early and innocent ode to the young girls later known as “groupies.” “School Day” told of the sing-song trials of the classroom (“American history and practical math; you’re studying hard, hoping to pass…”) and the liberation of rock ‘n’ roll once the day’s final bell rang.
“Roll Over Beethoven” was an anthem to rock’s history-making power, while “Rock and Roll Music” was a guidebook for all bands that followed (“It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it”). “Back in the U.S.A.” was a black man’s straight-faced tribute to his country at a time there was no guarantee Berry would be served at the drive-ins and corner cafes he was celebrating.
“Everything I wrote about wasn’t about me, but about the people listening,” he once said.
“Johnny B. Goode,” the tale of a guitar-playing country boy whose mother tells him he’ll be a star, was Berry’s signature song, the archetypal narrative for would-be rockers and among the most ecstatic recordings in the music’s history. Berry can hardly contain himself as the words hurry out (“Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans/Way back up in the woods among the evergreens”) and the downpour of guitar, drums and keyboards amplifies every call of “Go, Johnny Go!”
The song was inspired in part by Johnnie Johnson, the boogie-woogie piano master who collaborated on many Berry hits, but the story could have easily been Berry’s, Presley’s or countless others’. Commercial calculation made the song universal: Berry had meant to call Johnny a “colored boy,” but changed “colored” to “country,” enabling not only radio play, but musicians of any color to imagine themselves as stars.
“Chances are you have talent,” Berry later wrote of the song. “But will the name and the light come to you? No! You have to go!”
Johnny B. Goode could have only been a guitarist. The guitar was rock ‘n’ roll’s signature instrument and Berry’s clarion sound, a melting pot of country flash and rhythm ‘n blues drive, turned on at least a generation of musicians, among them the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, who once acknowledged he had “lifted every lick” from his hero; the Beatles’ George Harrison; Bruce Springsteen; and the Who’s Pete Townshend.
Berry also appeared in a dozen movies, doing his distinctive bent-legged “duck-walk” in several teen exploitation flicks of the ’50s. Richards organized the well-received 1987 documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a concert at St. Louis’ Fox Theatre to celebrate Berry’s 60th birthday. It featured Eric Clapton, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, who recalled being told by his own mother that Berry, not he, was the true king of rock ‘n’ roll.
Country, pop and rock artists have recorded Berry songs, including the Beatles (“Roll Over Beethoven”), Emmylou Harris (“You Never Can Tell”), Buck Owens (“Johnny B. Goode”) and AC/DC (“School Days”). The Rolling Stones’ first single was a cover of Berry’s “Come On” and they went on to perform and record “Around and Around,” ”Let it Rock” and others. Berry riffs pop up in countless songs, from the Stones’ ravenous “Brown Sugar” to the Eagles’ mellow country-rock ballad “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”
Some stars covered him too well. The Beach Boys borrowed the melody of “Sweet Little Sixteen” for their surf anthem “Surfin’ U.S.A.” without initially crediting Berry. The Beatles’ “Come Together,” written by John Lennon, was close enough to Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” to inspire a lawsuit by music publisher Morris Levy. In an out of court settlement, Lennon agreed to record “You Can’t Catch Me” for his 1975 “Rock n’ Roll” album.
In the ‘odd news’, even with all the classic hits Berry had, his only #1 hit was the comical, tongue-in-cheek novelty song “My Ding-a-ling”..