Chuck Berry, the father of rock ’n’ roll who duckwalked his way into musical history, composing, singing, and playing guitar on such anthems as “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,’” and “Rock and Roll Music,” died Saturday at his home in an unincorporated area west of St. Louis. He was 90. Police in St. Charles County, Mo., confirmed his death. Officers responding to a medical emergency at Mr. Berry’s Wentzville, Mo., home unsuccessfully applied life-saving measures.
Mr. Berry had announced in October that he’d be releasing an album in 2017, his first in 38 years.
How influential was Mr. Berry? John Lennon stated, “If you tried to give rock ’n’ roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’ ’’ Jerry Lee Lewis’s mother said, “You and Elvis are good, son — but you’re no Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry is rock ’n’ roll from his head to his toes.”
On Elvis Presley’s earliest records, one can still pick out rhythm and blues, country, gospel, and Tin Pan Alley, the musical genres that coalesced to form something new, which would soon be known as rock ‘n’ roll. On Mr. Berry’s first record, “Maybellene,” from 1955, what one unmistakably hears is that new something. Mr. Berry sounded “different from everybody. Like nothing we’d heard before,’” recalled Phil Chess, co-owner of Chess Records, which released “Maybellene’” and Mr. Berry’s other classic recordings. “There was just something about the rhythm — the beat. The song had a whole new kind of feel to it.’’
Along with their rhythm and feel, it was the exhilarating forthrightness of Mr. Berry’s songs that made them so important to the development of rock. Where Presley revealed the power of the new music, Mr. Berry proclaimed it. He was the herald of rock ‘n’ roll: not just singing the music, but promoting it.
“Any old way you choose it,’’ Mr. Berry sang, “it’s got to be rock and roll music, if you want to dance with me.’’
“Hail, hail, rock ‘n’ roll,” he sang in “School Day.’’
And “Roll Over Beethoven’” is as much command as title, an irresistible declaration of the arrival of a new cultural phenomenon.
Beethoven may not have rolled over, but his music did have to make room for Mr. Berry’s — literally. In 1977, astrophysicist Carl Sagan had recordings of both “Johnny B. Goode’” and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony included on two Voyager spacecraft as examples of human civilization worthy of note should intelligent life be encountered beyond the solar system.
Mr. Berry’s centrality to rock ’n’ roll was such that the critic Robert Christgau once described him as the “substance’” of the music. Mr. Berry, Christgau wrote, “taught George Harrison and Keith Richards to play guitar long before he met either, and his songs are still claimed as encores by everyone from folkies to heavy-metal kids.’’
Mr. Berry’s distinctive double-string style of guitar playing, and his transposing the style of boogie-woogie piano to the guitar, helped form the instrumental DNA of rock. It’s no exaggeration to say the Rolling Stones owe their existence to Mr.Berry. It was Richards’s spotting Mick Jagger carrying a copy of the album “One Dozen Berrys”’ that led to their first meeting, and a cover version of Mr. Berry’s “Come On” was the band’s first single. Giving the induction speech for Mr. Berry at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Richards said, “It’s hard for me to induct Chuck Berry, because I lifted every lick he ever played!’’
Mr. Berry was one of the hall’s inaugural inductees, in 1986. He was a Kennedy Center honoree in 2000 and the recipient of a 1984 Grammy lifetime achievement award, which cited him as “one of the most influential and creative innovators in the history of American popular music.’’ Mr. Berry was also a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In 2012 Mr. Berry was co-recipient, with Leonard Cohen, of PEN New England’s Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award. “If Beethoven hadn’t rolled over, there wouldn’t be room for any of us,” Cohen said. “All of us are footnotes to the words of Chuck Berry.” In an e-mailed tribute, Bob Dylan described Mr. Berry as “the Shakespeare of rock ’n’ roll.”
During his heyday, the 1950s, Mr. Berry had only four Top Ten singles: “Maybellene,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Johnny B. Goode.” Yet those and a large number of other songs he composed and recorded — “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Little Queenie,” “Carol,” “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Memphis,” “You Never Can Tell,” “Back in the USA,” among others — became rock standards.
Almost a decade before the emergence of Dylan, Mr. Berry created the template for a new cultural phenomenon, the rock singer-songwriter. Not just the Rolling Stones, but also Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, and numerous others have recorded Mr. Berry’s songs. The Beach Boys did, too, though it required a lawsuit to have that acknowledged. So similar are the melody and rhythm of “Surfin’ USA” to “Sweet Little Sixteen’” that Mr. Berry was eventually awarded a songwriting credit.
“The nature and backbone of my beat is boogie,’’ Mr. Berry wrote in his 1987 autobiography, “and the muscle of my music is melodies that are simple.’’ In some ways, his lyrics were simple, too, with their focus on cars, school, and dating. Yet that very simplicity masked Mr. Berry’s striking talent for narrative compression, clever wordplay, sometimes-bawdy humor, and a shrewd eye for detail.
As much sociologist as songwriter, Mr. Berry consciously focused his songs on “transistor-radio teenagers,’’ as he called them in his autobiography. “Whatever would sell is what I thought I should concentrate on, so from ‘Maybellene’ on I mainly improvised my lyrics toward the young adult and some even for the teeny boppers.’’
To make him seem closer in age to his fans, Mr. Berry claimed for many years to be five years younger than he actually was. He also said he was born in San Jose, Calif., rather than St. Louis, though that misrepresentation had to do with race, not age. The teenybopper market was overwhelmingly white, something Mr. Berry very much took into account. “Johnny B. Goode’’ was originally a “colored’’ rather than “country’’ boy, but Mr. Berry changed the modifier to increase the song’s popular appeal.
Such an alteration was characteristic. Mr. Berry rarely overlooked commercial considerations. In “Sweet Little Sixteen’” he made a point of naming Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” hoping to make an appearance on the television show. He also mentioned several geographical names in the song — for example, “They’re really rockin’ in Boston’” — to catch the ear of disc jockeys in those places.
Mr. Berry’s ability to cross racial barriers wasn’t solely a product of calculation. He’d long been drawn to country music. Mr. Berry’s biography on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website notes that “Maybellene” grafts “country & western guitar licks onto a rhythm & blues chassis.’’ He shunned such traditional African-American vocal devices as melismas, slurs, and ornamentation. When Mr. Berry sang, he sounded not quite white and not quite black — thanks to a small but discernible Midwestern twang in his voice and slightly fussy diction. It’s unlikely any rock singer has ever enunciated quite so precisely as Mr. Berry. Several times, he showed up for concerts in the Jim Crow South only to be sent away without performing because the promoter had assumed he was white.
It’s often been said that much of Presley’s success sprang from his being a white man who sounded black. Conversely, Mr. Berry was a black man who sounded white. Although his success never matched Presley’s, Mr. Berry had the last laugh, when his biggest (if least impressive) hit, “My Ding-a-Ling,” held down the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts in October 1972, keeping Presley’s last hit, “Burning Love,” at No. 2.
For all that he was an exuberant performer onstage, Mr. Berry never displayed the rawness and intensity of such contemporaries as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. He was older, cannier, and more experienced. Tellingly, his idol was that smoothest of popular singers, Nat King Cole. “If I had only one artist to listen to through eternity,’’ Mr. Berry said in a 1969 New York Post interview, “it would be Nat Cole.’’ His other primary influences were also older musicians: the broadly comic rhythm and blues singer Louis Jordan, the virtuoso jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, and the singer-guitarist bluesman T-Bone Walker.
Mr. Berry’s artistic discipline did not extend to his personal life. Although he abjured drugs, alcohol, and gambling, he showed no similar restraint toward women. There was a long history, as Mr. Berry winkingly put it in his autobiography, of “naughty-naughties I would commit from time to time.’’ The most unsavory instance was an accusation in the early ’90s that he secretly videotaped female patrons at a restaurant he owned as they used the bathroom.
Mr. Berry ran afoul of the law three times. He served nearly three years in a reformatory for house robberies he and two friends committed when he was 17. His involvement with an underage girl led to two years in prison in the early ’60s. Convicted on charges of income-tax evasion, Mr. Berry spent four months in prison in 1979.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born on Oct.18, 1926, in St. Louis. His father, Henry William Berry, did contracting work. His mother, Martha (Banks) Berry was kept busy at home by Mr. Berry and his five siblings.
The family, which was relatively prosperous, was hard-working and religious. “My very first memories, while still in my baby crib,’’ Mr. Berry wrote in his autobiography, “are of musical sounds — the assembled pure harmonies of the Baptist hymns, dominated by mother’s soprano and supported by my father’s bass blending with the stirring rhythms of true Baptist soul.’”
Mr. Berry took up the guitar in high school, seeking to impress girls. He also played and sang in quartets in the reformatory. After his release, he returned to St. Louis and, in 1948, married Themetta Suggs. Mr. Berry worked on an auto assembly line and as a hairdresser. He also began performing at local clubs.
In 1952, Mr. Berry joined a trio led by pianist Johnnie Johnson. Johnson’s importance to Mr. Berry’s success should not be underestimated. He played with Mr. Berry off and on for several decades. It’s often been speculated how much Johnson, who died in 2005, contributed to Mr. Berry’s composing. He filed a lawsuit in 2000, a year before he was inducted as a sideman into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, seeking a share of Mr. Berry’s songwriting royalties. The suit was dismissed in 2002.
Mr. Berry quickly became so popular that when he threatened to leave the group Johnson let him take over. Success in St. Louis emboldened Mr. Berry to seek a recording contract. He went to Chicago in May 1955, where he introduced himself to blues great Muddy Waters. Waters sent him to Chess Records, the company he recorded for. Mr. Berry had a tape of two songs he’d done, “Wee Wee Hours,” a slow blues, and “Ida Red,”’ an unusual mix of country and rhythm and blues, about a pretty woman driving a Cadillac. “The big beat, cars, and young love,” recalled label co-owner Leonard Chess, “it was a trend and we jumped on it.’’
Signed to Chess, Mr. Berry recorded a string of hits and toured extensively, delighting audiences with his trademark bent-kneed strut, the duckwalk. Michael J. Fox did a version of it in the hit 1985 film “Back to the Future.” Mr. Berry became something of an entrepreneur, opening a nightclub in St. Louis and Berry Park, an amusement park, in a nearby suburb. During the ’70s, he held several music festivals there.
Mr. Berry’s popularity suffered during his early-’60s prison stay. Upon his release, he toured England for the first time, meeting with great success. He also returned to the charts, with “Nadine,” “Little Marie,” and “No Particular Place to Go.” Their success was double-edged, though, as each of those songs was derived from a previous hit: “Maybellene,” “Memphis,” and “School Day,” respectively. Mr. Berry wasn’t yet an oldies act, but he was getting there.
In 1966, Mr. Berry signed with Mercury Records. The most notable of a motley lot of recordings was a live album of a Fillmore West concert where Mr. Berry was backed by the Steve Miller Band. Mr. Berry had already begun touring without his own musicians, a practice for which he was widely criticized. That he was able to reliably function with pick-up bands indicates how thoroughly his music had become the lingua franca of rock. At a Maryland performance in the early ’70s, Mr. Berry was backed by a then-unknown Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Springsteen later recalled his amazement as Mr. Berry showed up at the last minute, as was his custom, and was paid in cash, as his contract stipulated.
Returning to Chess, Mr. Berry had the biggest commercial success of his career with “The London Chuck Berry Sessions,’” in 1972. A 1987 documentary, “Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll!,’’ recorded a 60th birthday concert, featuring Richards, Eric Clapton, and other musical greats. The film’s most remarkable moment came during rehearsal. Richards announced that Mr. Berry had to turn down his amplifier to insure a proper balance on the film’s soundtrack. Mr. Berry flared up. “If it winds up in the film that way, that’s the way Chuck Berry plays it. Understand?’’ The dial stayed where it was.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Berry leaves four children, Darlin Ingrid Berry-Clay, Melody Exes Berry-Eskridge, Aloha, and Charles Jr.; grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.