“ONE OF MY BIG LIGHTS has gone out,” declared Keith Richards as news of Chuck Berry’s passing began to filter through on social media on Saturday night. Richards – who idolised Berry and openly admitted “I lifted every lick he ever played” – was just one the thousands of musicians who paid tribute to a man whose guitar playing, songwriting and attitude changed music as we know it.
Born in St Louis on October 18, 1926, Charles Edward Berry grew up in a musical household where both his parents sang in the local church choir. His sisters too played piano while Chuck himself admired the smooth voice and playing of Nat ‘King’ Cole.
Further inspired by Muddy Waters, Berry began to explore blues and jazz, and his first performance at High School is reputed to have consisted of an adaptation of Jay McShann’s 1941 hit, Confessin’ The Blues (a tune Berry would return to, and finally record in 1960).
Buying a guitar for four dollars, Berry was taught by his friend Ira Harris and set about learning the popular songs of the day, developing his own style and distinctive stage moves. The latter – inspired by T-Bone Walker’s flamboyance – came into its own when, in 1952, Berry joined the Johnnie Johnson Trio. Led by pianist Johnson and featuring drummer Ebby Hardy, the three-piece secured a residency at St Louis’s Cosmopolitan Club and began to draw a crowd with their driving blend of blues, R&B and hillbilly music, further enlivened by Berry’s showmanship.
In 1955, while on holiday in Chicago, Berry met Muddy Waters, who suggested that Chuck should take his music to Leonard and Phil Chess, the brothers who ran Chess Records. Tracking the pair down, Berry and Johnson entered Chess Studios on May 21 and duly cut an adaptation of Ida Red – a country song popularised by Bob Wills. Re-written by Chuck and re-titled Maybellene, the track became a million-seller, establishing Berry as Chess’s biggest star.
Maybellene established Berry’s future songwriting template: a cocktail of what Leonard Chess described as “the big beat, cars and young love.” His unique wit and wordplay were also key to that appeal. The iconoclastic Roll Over Beethoven – released as a single a year after the recording of Maybellene in May ’56 – is proof enough, Chuck’s lyrics challenging the establishment while confirming the dawning of a new musical era.
While Berry’s tough sound would inspire innumerable teenagers to pick up guitars, a string of hit singles that included Too Much Monkey Business, School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes The Bell), Rock And Roll Music and Johnny B Goode are filled with lyrical vignettes that not only defined the late ‘50s, but whose appeal remains universal. It is this quality that prompted Bruce Springsteen to hail Berry upon his passing as “the greatest pure rock’n’roll writer who ever lived.”
If, like Nat ‘King’ Cole before him and Motown’s Berry Gordy Jr after him, Berry understood how to cut through race and genre barriers, his personal life was complicated. Arrested at a young age for armed robbery, his stardom did not protect him in several brushes with the law. In December 1959, he was arrested and brought to trial over allegations that he had sexual intercourse with a minor and had transported her across state lines. The complexity and racist undercurrents of the case meant that the legalities would last three years, ultimately leading to him serving 18 months in prison.
Released from jail in October 1963, Berry emerged embittered by the experience. And yet, he also found himself lauded by the Beatles, Stones and a host of ‘British Invasion’ bands, all of whom had covered his songs. While a number of his peers were reduced to lesser gigs, Berry still continued to attract audiences around the world, most specifically in Britain.
Like many artists of his generation, Berry would find his popularity challenged in the ‘70s, but he always retained a devoted following. In 1972 he scored his only US Number 1 single with the release of novelty single My Ding-A-Ling, recorded live at the Locarno Ballroom in Coventry.
If, overall, his records sold less, his road work remained intense, Berry using pick-up bands to ensure he was able to maximise his own fee. Indeed, his no-nonsense approach to business added to his legend. He was reputed to carry a gun, demand cash up-front and walk offstage straight out of the venue.
Most recently, Berry had completed work on a new album. Simply entitled Chuck, it was his first in nearly four decades and was designed to celebrate his ninetieth birthday. Sadly, it will now emerge as a posthumous release.
Chuck Berry’s death at his home was pronounced at 1.26pm on March 18 and confirmed by St Charles County Police. The Berry family issued a short statement that reads as follows:
“We are deeply saddened to announce that Chuck Berry – beloved husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather – passed away at his home today at the age of 90. Though his health had deteriorated recently, he spent his last days at home surrounded by the love of his family and friends. The Berry family asks that you respect their privacy during this difficult time.”
MOJO would like to extend our sympathies to the Berry family, and to thank Chuck for endless musical inspiration. The world would be so very poorer without his music. Hail! Hail! Rock’n’roll!
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