St. CHARLES, Missouri- “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, ” Berry’s website announced.
Born in St. Louis on October 18, 1926 Berry had many influences on his life that shaped his musical style. He emulated the smooth vocal clarity of his idol, Nat King Cole, while playing blues songs from bands like Muddy Waters. For his first stage performance, Berry chose to sing a Jay McShann song called “Confessin’ the Blues.” It was at his high school’s student musical performance, when the blues was well-liked but not considered appropriate for such an event. He got a thunderous applause for his daring choice, and from then on, Berry had to be onstage.
It was in 1953 that Chuck Berry joined the Sir John’s Trio (eventually renamed the Chuck Berry Combo), which played the popular Cosmopolitan Club in St. Louis. Country-western music was big at the time, so Berry decided to use some of the riffs and create his own unique hillbilly sound. The black audience thought he was crazy at first, but couldn’t resist trying to dance along with it. Since country was popular with white people, they began to come to the shows, and the audience was at some points almost 40 percent white. Berry’s stage show antics were getting attention, but the other band members did their parts as well. In his own words: “I would slur my strings to make a passage that Johnnie (Johnson) could not produce with piano keys but the answer would be so close that he would get a tremendous ovation. His answer would sound similar to some that Jerry Lee Lewis’s fingers later began to flay.”
Berry continued his success with such hits as “Brown-Eyed Man,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Memphis,” “Roll Over, Beethoven!” and “Johnny B. Goode.” “Johnny B. Goode” is Berry’s masterpiece, as it brought together all the elements of Berry’s unique musical sound. It cemented his place in rock history and led to fame in the 1950s. His popularity garnered him television and movie appearances and he toured frequently.
Berry’s incredible success is due to his ability to articulate the concerns and attitudes of his audience in his music. At the height of his success, Berry was a 30-year-old black man singing to a mostly white, teenage audience. Dubbed the “Eternal Teenager,” Chuck Berry’s knowledge of the pop market made it possible for him to break color barriers and play to an integrated audience.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Berry’s music was the inspiration for such groups as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Berry had a number of comeback recordings and in 1972 had the first and only #1 Pop Chart hit of his career with “My Ding-A-Ling. 1986 fittingly saw him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as the very first inductee in history. As a tribute to his pervasiveness in the realm of rock, a clip of “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen played in the Voyager I spacecraft, proving Chuck Berry and his rock legacy are truly out of this world.