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?’ ”
So early Monday morning, Berry made his way to Chess Records and positioned himself in a store across the street. When Leonard Chess arrived, Berry ran over and made his pitch. Chess was impressed by the young man’s self-confidence and told him to come back with a tape of his own material. Berry returned the following week, bringing with him the other members of the trio, pianist Johnnie Johnson and drummer Eddie Hardy, and four new songs.
Searching for a name for his first hit on Chess Records, “Maybellene,” pianist Johnnie Johnson told NPR that “we looked up on the windowsill, and there was a mascara box up there with ‘Maybelline’ written on it. And Leonard Chess said, ‘Why don’t we name the damn thing “Maybellene”?'” The record was the first by a black artist to outsell covers of it by white musicians (and led to a three-decade battle over its credits). Berry’s first — and only — chart-topping hit came in 1972, with the louche novelty single “My Ding-A-Ling.”
Through the late ’50s and ’60s Berry defined the contours of rock ‘n’ roll and, along with peers like Little Richard and James Brown, the full-throttle energy on stage that this still-developing high-tempo, electrified style of blues required. His work influenced nearly every popular musician that came after.
“Writing a song can be a peculiar task,” he wrote in Chuck Berry: The Autobiography. “The kind of music I like then, thereafter, right now and forever, is the kind I heard when I was a teenager. So the guitar styles of Carl Hogan, T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian and Elmore James, not to leave out many of my peers who I’ve heard on the road, must be the total of what is called Chuck Berry’s style.”
Six years ago Berry’s health began to decline, though he maintained his signature defiance even then, refusing an ambulance and leaving the theater on his own after collapsing onstage.
Berry announced a record last October at the age of 90 following a 38-year hiatus. “This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” said Berry at this time of its announcement in reference to, Themetta, 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!”