Chuck Berry, the Father of Rock ’n’ Roll, Dies at 90
By Monée Fields-White /The Root | 3/23/2017, midnight
Singer, guitarist and songwriter Chuck Berry, a giant in the history of rock ’n’ roll whose turbulent private life was marked by a rocky relationship with the legal system, died Saturday at the age of 90.
The St. Charles County Police Department in Missouri confirmed Berry’s death in a Facebook post. Officers responded to a medical emergency in a home at approximately 12:40 p.m. First responders could not revive Berry, and he was pronounced dead at 1:26 p.m. The cause of death was not known.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry Sr. was born on Oct. 18, 1926, in San Jose, Calif., but his family moved to St. Louis just after his birth. Interested in music early on, he sang in the church choir and school glee club. Berry taught himself how to play the guitar in junior high school.
Just before graduating from high school, Berry was convicted of armed robbery and spent three years in reform school. He married within a year of his release in 1947 and worked as a carpenter and hairstylist while also playing guitar with different bands. In 1953 he joined a jazz-and-blues band, Sir John’s Trio, and played at the Cosmopolitan Club in St. Louis for the next three years. He made his mark with the group, changing its name to the Chuck Berry Combo and the musical style to a fast-paced mix of country, pop, and rhythm and blues.
In 1955 he went to see Muddy Waters in concert in Chicago, and afterward he asked the blues legend for advice about making a record. Muddy advised him to seek out Leonard and Phil Chess of Chicago’s Chess Records. He did, and they ended up signing Berry, who quickly had a string of top 10 hits, including “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Carol.”
Berry’s ability to draw in white teenagers without alienating his core black audience—the first black rock-’n’-roller to do so—led to his tremendous crossover success. He became known for the flair and showmanship of his live performances, which featured his famed “duck walk” along with an infectious mix of rhythmic blues and country with a dash of witty lyrics.
Berry, always a shrewd businessman, reveled in his wealth and fame, opening Berry Park, a custom-built estate/amusement park in Wentzville, Mo., in 1957. The property had a guitar-shaped pool, golf course, hotel rooms and a nightclub. He also steadily built his beloved fleet of Cadillacs.
In 1961, however, Berry was once again in trouble with the criminal-justice system: He was found guilty of transporting a teenage girl across state lines for immoral purposes. During his stint in prison from 1962 to 1963, he completed his high school education and wrote songs such as “Tulane” and “Nadine.”
Such tunes, however, were not enough to maintain Berry’s popularity in the 1960s against the tidal wave of new young artists like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. The Beatles even recorded versions of his classic songs, including “Roll Over Beethoven.” Berry switched to Mercury Records in 1966 to boost his career, but the move did little to help. He became a regular at rock-revival tours but ended up having his biggest hit in 1972—his only No. 1 hit, as it turns out—with “My Ding-a-Ling,” which sold 2 million copies.