Chuck Berry, who duck-walked his way into the pantheon of rock ’n’ roll pioneers as one of its most influential guitarists and lyricists, creating raucous anthems that defined the genre’s sound and heartbeat, died at his home in Missouri on Saturday. He was 90.
Police in St Charles County, outside St Louis, said they were called to Berry’s home by a caretaker and found him unresponsive. Efforts to revive him failed and he was pronounced dead at 1:26pm.
Considered one of the founding fathers of rock ’n’ roll, Charles Edward Anderson Berry was present at its infancy in the 1950s and emerged as its first star guitarist and songwriter — a nearly 30-year-old black performer whose style electrified young white audiences and was emulated by white performers who came to dominate popular music in the US.
Although Elvis Presley was called the king of rock ’n’ roll, that crown would have fit just as well on Berry’s own carefully sculpted pompadour.
Berry hits such as Johnny B. Goode, Roll Over Beethoven, Sweet Little Sixteen, Maybellene and Memphis melded elements of blues, rockabilly and jazz into some of the most timeless pop songs of the 20th century.
He was a monumental influence on just about any kid who picked up a guitar with rock star aspirations — Keith Richards, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen among them.
Bob Dylan called Berry “the Shakespeare of rock ’n’ roll,” and he was one of the first popular acts to write as well as perform his own songs. They focused on youth, romance, cars and good times, with lyrics that were complex, humorous and sometimes a little raunchy.
“If you tried to give rock ’n’ roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry,’” Lennon once said.
Paying tribute to Berry on Twitter on Saturday, Springsteen called him “rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ’n’ roll writer who ever lived.”
When Richards inducted Berry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, he said: “It’s very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry, because I’ve lifted every lick he ever played. This is the gentleman who started it all.”
His death came five months after Berry announced plans to release his first album of new music in 38 years some time this year — a collection of mostly original material recorded and produced by Berry, titled Chuck and dedicated to his wife of 68 years, Themetta “Toddy” Berry.
Berry listed T-Bone Walker, Carl Hogan of Louis Jordan’s band and Charlie Christian from Benny Goodman’s band among his guitar influences, but his lyrical style was all his own.
Berry came along at a time when much of the US remained racially segregated, but it was hard for young audiences of any color to resist a performer who delivered such a powerful beat with so much energy and showmanship.
Berry said he performed his signature bent-knee, head-bobbing “duck walk” across more than 4,000 concert stages. He said he invented the move as a child in order to make his mother laugh as he chased a ball under a table.
Berry’s only No. 1 hit was My Ding-a-Ling, a throwaway novelty song that seemed to be a juvenile sex reference.
He continued playing a monthly show at a St Louis nightclub into his late 80s.