Chuck Berry, inventor of rock and roll, dies at 90

Chuck Berry, the immeasurably influential guitarist and songwriter who -- more than any other single individual -- was responsible for inventing rock-and-roll, has died at age 90.

The St. Charles County Police Department in Missouri announced his death Saturday after a medical emergency unit was called to his home and he could not be revived.

In the 1950s, Mr. Berry created the lexicon, in both words and guitar licks, of the music that would fuel a youth culture revolution.

In the post-World War II Eisenhower-era when America was confronted with a confounding new social phenomenon -- the rebellious teenager -- it was Mr. Berry, an African American beautician-turned-bluesman who was already 29 when he had his first hit with “Maybellene” in 1955, who brought the social mores of “Sweet Little 16” high schoolers to vibrant musical life.
 
The only early rock figure of similarly enormous impact is Elvis Presley. The two titans were a study in contrasts. Presley was the white Southerner who set off a youth culture explosion by bringing the sexual energy of black rhythm and blues to a middle-American audience that didn’t know what hit it.

Mr. Berry was a more circumspect Midwesterner dressed in a jacket and tie. Along with his arsenal of guitar licks, he created archetypal stage moves, most notably the duck walk, with athletic precision that wowed his teenage fans without risking Presley’s hip-gyrating lasciviousness.

But while Presley didn’t write his own songs, Mr. Berry was a brilliantly economical storyteller who wrote the songs about girls and cars and the romance of the open road that sent the next generation of rock heroes rolling down the highway.

The Beatles covered Mr. Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” on their second album, and John Lennon, who had his hero on as a guest when he and Yoko Ono cohosted The Mike Douglas Show in Philadelphia in 1972, once said: “If you tried to give rock-and-roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”  

Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards might not ever have met if Richards hadn’t seen that Jagger was carrying a copy of Mr. Berry’s album Rockin’ at the Hops one day at a suburban London train station in 1961. In the band's early years, a large chunk of the Stones' repertoire was made up of Berry covers such as “Little Queenie” and “Around and Around.”

Those songs and so many other Berry compositions have been go-to encore options for the Stones and thousands of other bands. That list begins with "Johnny B. Goode," Mr. Berry’s most iconic hit, from 1958, a snippet of which was rocketed along with the spacecraft Voyager I,  inspiring a Saturday Night Live sketch in which Steve Martin read the extraterrestrial response: “Send more Chuck Berry.”

On Saturday, Jagger paid tribute to Mr. Berry, writing that “he lit up our teenage years, and blew life into our dreams of being musicians and performers. His lyrics shone above  others &  threw a strange light on the American dream.”

Bruce Springsteen said: “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist and the greatest pure rock and roll writer who ever lived. This is a tremendous loss of a giant for the ages.”  

Mr. Berry’s music was a mongrel mix of influences. When he first recorded for Chicago’s Chess Records, he counted Texas guitarist T-Bone Walker as a major influence on his stagecraft, and modeled his songwriting after 1940s jump-blues bandleader Louis Jordan. He and his pianist partner Johnnie Johnson’s first single was an unmemorable blues tune called “Wee Wee Hours.”  

But the flip side was a speeded-up take on “Ida Red,” a country hit for Western Swing bandleader Bob Wills. Leonard Chess changed the title to “Maybellene” and Cleveland deejay Alan Freed, who popularized the term rock-and-roll (and kept 25 percent of Mr. Berry’s publishing), turned it into a hit.

Mr. Berry was always a business-minded musician, astute at name-dropping the cities across the nation where radio and television exposure was beneficial to his career, famously singing, “They’re really rockin’ on Bandstand, Philadelphia, Pa,” in “Sweet Little Sixteen.” In later years, after his hits dried up following the novelty anomaly “My Ding-A-Ling” in 1972, he was famous for always playing with local pickup bands on tour dates, and demanding payment in cash up front.

In 1959, at the peak of his career, Mr. Berry was arrested for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for “immoral reasons.” He served 18 months in prison  but recovered remarkably with 1964 hits “”Nadine (Is It You?),” “No Particular Place To Go,” “You Never Can Tell,” and the masterly “Promised Land,” like his earlier 1956 “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” full of subtle observations of race relations in America.

Mr. Berry's playful flair for language was often an absolute joy, equal to the all-purpose adaptability of his trademark guitar runs. “They furnished off the apartment with a two room Roebuck sale,” he sang in “You Never Can Tell.” “The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale.”

In the ingenious “Memphis,” the reveal is that the female the narrator is pining for is his 5-year-old daughter, seen “waving me goodbye, with hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye.” Bob Dylan called Mr. Berry “the Shakespeare of rock-and-roll,” and the late Leonard Cohen once said, “If Beethoven hadn’t rolled over, there’d be no room for any of us.”

When he turned 90 in October, Mr. Berry announced that this year, he would be releasing Chuck, his first album in 38 years. He said it was dedicated to his wife, Thelmetta, whom he married in 1948. “My beloved Toddy,” he said. “My darling, I’m growing old!”

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