Chuck Berry, Legend Of Rock ‘N’ Roll, Dies At 90

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Legendary musician Chuck Berry, who was central to the development of rock ‘n’ roll beginning in the ’50s with indelible hits like “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Johnny B. Goode,” died today in St. Charles County, Mo. He was 90 years old. His death was confirmed by the St. Charles County, Mo., police department.

Charles Edward Berry grew up in Saint Louis, Mo., as the fourth of six children, developing a career that epitomized a bad-boy image, which musicians have tried to cop ever since. Berry was the real thing. He spent time in reform school for robbery at 18 (with a nonfunctional pistol, he claimed), went to prison for income tax evasion and transported a minor across state lines for quote “immoral purposes.”

Initially beginning his career as a beautician with a lifelong interest in music (he first performed in high school), Berry began to slowly ease towards the St. Louis nightlife scene in the early ’50s as a member of the Johnnie Johnson trio. As a solo musician, he emulated the smooth vocals of his idol Nat King Cole and admired the gritty blues of another idol, Muddy Waters.

“And I listened to him for his entire set,” Mr. Berry recalled to NPR in 2000 of seeing Muddy Waters in Chicago. “When he was over, I went up to him, I asked him for his autograph and told him that I played guitar. ‘How do you get in touch with a record company?’ He said, ‘Why don’t you go see Leonard Chess over on 47th?’ ”

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Chuck Berry, who with his indelible guitar licks, brash self-confidence and memorable songs about cars, girls and wild dance parties did as much as anyone to define rock ’n’ roll’s potential and attitude in its early years, died on Saturday. He was 90.

The St. Charles County Police Department in Missouri confirmed his death on its Facebook page. Mr. Berry died at his home near Wentzville, Mo., about 45 miles west of St. Louis. The department said it responded to a medical emergency and he was declared dead after lifesaving measures were unsuccessful.

While Elvis Presley was rock’s first pop star and teenage heartthrob, Mr. Berry was its master theorist and conceptual genius, the songwriter who understood what the kids wanted before they knew themselves. With songs like “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” he gave his listeners more than they knew they were getting from jukebox entertainment.

His guitar lines wired the lean twang of country and the bite of the blues into phrases with both a streamlined trajectory and a long memory. And tucked into the lighthearted, telegraphic narratives that he sang with such clear enunciation was a sly defiance, upending convention to claim the pleasures of the moment.

In “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “You Can’t Catch Me” and other songs, Mr. Berry invented rock as a music of teenage wishes fulfilled and good times (even with cops in pursuit). In “Promised Land,” “Too Much Monkey Business” and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” he celebrated and satirized America’s opportunities and class tensions. His rock ’n’ roll was a music of joyful lusts, laughed-off tensions and gleefully shattered icons.

Mr. Berry was already well past his teens when he wrote mid-1950s manifestoes like “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “School Day.” Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry on Oct. 18, 1926, in St. Louis, he grew up in a segregated, middle-class neighborhood there, soaking up gospel, blues, and rhythm and blues, along with some country music.

He spent three years in reform school after a spree of car thefts and armed robbery. He received a degree in hairdressing and cosmetology and worked for a time as a beautician; he married Themetta Suggs in 1948 and started a family. She survives him, as do four children: Ingrid Berry, Melody Eskridge, Aloha Isa Leigh Berry and Charles Berry Jr.

By the early 1950s, he was playing guitar and singing blues, pop standards and an occasional country tune with local combos. Shortly after joining Sir John’s Trio, led by the pianist Johnnie Johnson, he reshaped the group’s music and took it over.

From the Texas guitarist T-Bone Walker, Mr. Berry picked up a technique of bending two strings at once that he would rough up and turn into a rock ’n’ roll talisman, the Chuck Berry lick, which would in turn be emulated by the Rolling Stones and countless others. He also recognized the popularity of country music and added some hillbilly twang to his guitar lines. Mr. Berry’s hybrid music, along with his charisma and showmanship, drew white as well as black listeners to the Cosmopolitan Club in St. Louis.

In 1955, Mr. Berry ventured to Chicago and asked one of his idols, the bluesman Muddy Waters, about making records. Waters directed him to the label he recorded for, Chess Records, where one of the owners, Leonard Chess, heard potential in Mr. Berry’s song “Ida Red.”

A variant of an old country song by the same name, “Ida Red” had a 2/4 backbeat with a hillbilly oompah, while Mr. Berry’s lyrics sketched a car chase, the narrator “motorvatin’” after an elusive girl. Mr. Chess renamed the song “Maybellene,” and in a long session on May 21, 1955, Mr. Chess and the bassist Willie Dixon got the band to punch up the rhythm

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Chuck Berry, whose rollicking songs, springy guitar riffs and onstage duck walk defined rock & roll during its early years and for decades to come, died on Saturday. The St. Charles County Police Department confirmed the news on Facebook. Berry was 90 years old.

“St. Charles County police responded to a medical emergency on Buckner Road at approximately 12:40 p.m. today (Saturday, March 18),” the police department wrote on Facebook. “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.”

“We are deeply saddened to announce that Chuck Berry – beloved husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather – passed away at his home today at the age of 90,” the family said in a statement. “Though his health had deteriorated recently, he spent his last days at home surrounded by the love of his family and friends. The Berry family asks that you respect their privacy during this difficult time.”

While the exact cause of death is currently unknown, Berry’s son, Charles Jr., recently told Rolling Stone that he had suffered a bout of pneumonia. “Now what I can say is he’s a 90-year-old man,” he said. “And like most 90-year-old men, he has good days and he has bad days. In the not too distant past, he had a bout with pneumonia. He’s recovering, but it’s a much slower process for him to recover.”

Tributes to the musician from admirers came immediately. “The Rolling Stones are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Chuck Berry,” the band wrote in a statement. “He was a true pioneer of rock & roll and a massive influence on us. Chuck was not only a brilliant guitarist, singer and performer, but most importantly, he was a master craftsman as a songwriter. His songs will live forever.”

“Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock & roll writer who ever lived,” Bruce Springsteen wrote on Twitter, while Brian Wilson wrote, “I am so sad to hear about Chuck Berry passing – a big inspiration! He will be missed by everyone who loves Rock & Roll. Love & Mercy.” Kiss’ Paul Stanley called Berry ” a cornerstone of all that is, was and will be Rock and Roll,” with Lenny Kravitz noting that “none of us would have been here without you.”

“It started with Chuck Berry,” Rod Stewart said in a statement. “The first album I ever bought was Chuck’s ‘Live at the Tivoli’ and I was never the same. He was more than a legend; he was a founding father. You can hear his influence in every rock & roll band from my generation on. I’ve been performing his ‘Sweet Little Rock & Roller’ since 1974 and tonight, when my band and I perform it at Caesars Palace’s Colosseum, it’ll be for Chuck Berry — your sound lives on.”

Starting with his first hit, 1955’s “Maybellene,” Berry penned a collection of songs that, in both groove and teen-life mindset, became essential parts of the rock canon: “Roll Over, Beethoven,” “Rock & Roll Music,” and especially “Johnny B. Goode” were witty, zesty odes to the then-new art form – songs so key to the music that they had to be mastered by every fledgling guitarist or band who followed Berry. As teenagers, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger first bonded over their love of Berry’s music, and over the last five decades Berry’s songs have been covered by an astounding array of artists: from the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Kinks, the Doors and the Grateful Dead to James Taylor, Peter Tosh, Judas Priest, Dwight Yoakam, Phish, and Sex Pistols. As Richards said when inducting Berry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, “I’ve stolen every lick he ever played.”

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