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Chuck Berry, Legend Of Rock 'N' Roll, Dies At 90

Mar 18, 2017
Originally published on March 20, 2017 9:55 am

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 copy 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.

A recording of "Johnny B. Goode" was included on the interstellar Voyager spacecrafts' famed "Golden Record" — it left our solar system in 2013.

"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."

As John Lennon once put it, "If you tried to give rock 'n' roll another name, you might have called it Chuck Berry."

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!"

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We begin this hour with the death of a legend. The man known as the father of rock and roll died on Saturday. Chuck Berry is credited as the inventor of America's cultural soundtrack. He was found in his home in Missouri. He was 90 years old. NPR's Allison Keyes has this remembrance.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: If extraterrestrials ever come across the Voyager space probe launched in 1977 as a postcard of Earth's civilization, one of the things they'll hear is this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHNNY B. GOODE")

KEYES: Chuck Berry's classic "Johnny B. Goode" was recorded in 1957 and is possibly a bit of rock and roll song of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHNNY B. GOODE")

CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Deep down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans, way back up in the woods among the evergreens, there stood a log cabin made...

KEYES: Berry's music is so enmeshed in America's soundtrack that NASA decided that it must be included in a package containing an assortment of all things that define this planet.

ANDY MACKAY: The amazing thing about "Johnny B. Goode" to me is that it sounds like a folk song.

KEYES: In 2008, producer Andy Mackay produced a four-CD boxed set of Chuck Berry's music.

MACKAY: Sounds like a song that came out of the generations - just honed over generations, not written by an individual. And yet it is written by an individual.

KEYES: Mackay believes Berry's ability to meld country, blues and R&B created the blueprint for what became rock and roll.

MACKAY: Essentially, he made map. Buddy Holly maybe made the map for a band. Chuck Berry made the - he created the format, though, for rock and roll from the lyric content to the guitar riffs to the rhythms.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET LITTLE 16")

BERRY: (Singing) All the cats want to dance with sweet little 16.

MACKAY: He was the architect. That's the term that some people use.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET LITTLE 16")

BERRY: (Singing) Little 16 - she's got the grown-up blues, tight dresses and lipstick.

KEYES: Charles Edward Berry grew up in St. Louis, and his career epitomized the bad boy image that rock and roll artists have tried to cop ever since. But Berry was the real thing. He spent time in reform school for robbery at 18. He went to prison for income tax evasion, as well as for transporting a minor across state lines for, quote, "immoral purposes." But it is his music that set America's pulse racing.

The influences that shaped Berry's musical style also illustrate the dichotomy of the man. He emulated the smooth vocals of his idol Nat King Cole and admired the gritty blues of another idol, Muddy Waters. Berry told NPR in 2000 that he met Waters after catching the blues man's show in 1955 - Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BERRY: 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 the record company? So he said, why don't you go see Leonard Chess over on 47th?

KEYES: Chess liked the song on Berry's audition tape that was similar to an old country tune called "Ida Red," but had Berry rework it because he felt the name was too rural-sounding. His late pianist, Johnnie Johnson, drove to Chicago with Berry and told NPR in a 1999 interview what happened next.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOHNNIE JOHNSON: That was a problem. So nobody could think of a name, so we looked up under the window seal and there was a mascara box on there with Maybelline written on it. And Leonard Chess said, why don't we name that darn thing "Maybellene"?

KEYES: Berry heard the song on the radio when it was released in August 1955.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BERRY: Passing by a tailor shop that I got my high school graduation coat made at, and I got - passed by the shop until the song played out, you know. I didn't want anybody to see me listening, you know, to it, but it was "Maybellene" I was listening to. And when it played out, you know, that was my last walk past the door of the place. And I flew home - you know, 20 blocks from home - and told everybody. I heard it. I heard it. I heard it.

KEYES: Berry continued to perform almost to the end at a St. Louis club called Blueberry Hill. Owner Joe Edwards says what's striking about Berry's music is the way the words stayed close to the beat, but still sounded like real speech.

JOE EDWARDS: What he did with the English language and how he worked the words and the detail that he put into the songs - I mean, if you listen to the verses in a Chuck Berry song, they keep changing, and they keep telling the story.

KEYES: "Maybellene" went to number five on the Billboard chart in 1955, making Berry the rare black artist back then who successfully crossed over to the mostly white pop charts. Berry has said he deliberately made his diction and his words harder and wider. Pianist Johnnie Johnson recalled that this caused consternation on some road trips.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: When we would walk out on the stage, it'd be a lot of ohs (ph) and ahs (ph) and whatever because he's a black man playing hillbilly music.

KEYES: Berry continued with a string of hits, including "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," "Roll Over, Beethoven" and "Rock And Roll Music," but he never bought into the idea that he himself invented the genre.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERRY: If you did start something, how can you say that anybody else had anything to do with it. If you started it, you know, you're the - you're the - is that why they say the father of rock? Boy, they have no idea how wrong they are (laughter).

KEYES: In 1986, Berry led the first class to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAYBELLENE")

BERRY: (Singing) Why can't you be true? Oh, Maybellene, why can't you be true? You done started doing the things you used to do. As I was motivating over... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.