by G. Brown
To most millennials, his name isn’t even vaguely familiar. But every time you listen to Rihanna or Chance the Rapper, you hear his influence. On Saturday, the man known as a rock n’ roll legend took his final bow over the weekend and passed on from mortality to the immortal pages of music history. Chuck Berry died Saturday at his home in St. Charles Missouri at the age of 90 years old while he was already working on his next record.
Berry, born Charles Edward Anderson, was known for redefining R&B and bringing a lot of soul to Rock n’ Roll. The singer was known as much for his guitar skills and those amazing riffs as for voice and showmanship. His records like “Maybellene”, “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode” topped the charts in the late 50s as rock n’ roll was changing the way America listened to music.
Berry grew up with his brothers and sisters in what was defined as a middle class African American family in St. Louis. He showed interest in music all during his formative years and was even performing for schoolmates. By the time he was in high school, Berry somehow got off his musical path and found the life of crime. He was convicted of armed robbery and of stealing a car at gunpoint. Berry was sent away to reform school for three years to pay for his crime. But even while serving time for his crime, music was still on his mind and Berry formed a singing quartet with three other boys in the reformatory. When he regained his freedom, on his 21st birthday, Berry got married and was ready to settle down on a job at a nearby automobile assembly plant. But music was already in his soul and Berry began performing whenever he could with groups like the Johnnie Johnson trio and took guitar lessons which laid the foundation for what would become his unique style. When he met blues legend Muddy Waters, he suggested Berry contact Chess Records which signed him on to record an adaptation of a country song that catapulted him to stardom. “Maybellene” became Berry’s first hit selling over a million copies and reaching #1 on Billboard’s R&B chart. Berry was on his way, recording more hits and even opening his own nightclub. Berry followed up his first hit with a second, “Roll Over Beethoven”…which didn’t sell as well as his first record, but established that Berry was a talent to be reckoned with. In the following years, Berry would tour the country with established acts like Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers all while still churning out hits like “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Johnny B. Goode”.
In 1962, Berry’s meteoric climb came crashing back to earth when he once again ended up on the wrong side of the law and sentenced to three years in prison for transporting a 14 year old girl across state lines. The girl worked as his employee-a hatcheck girl–but authorities pressed the issue and Berry stood trial. It wasn’t the last entanglement Berry would have with the law, including charges of tax evasion in 1979, but no matter how off track he careened, the singer always found his way back to music.
In the early 70’s, Berry released a novelty song whose naughty lyrics were just innocent enough to give Berry another #1 hit. “My Ding-a-Ling” was a raunchy little song about a boy’s discovery of the male anatomy and was as humorous as it was entertaining.
By 1986 and more than 30 years of recording, Berry was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its grand opening. His music was cited as having “laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance.” Berry would go on to perform at the White House at the request of then President Jimmy Carter, tour internationally and play to adoring crowds through the 80’s.
On his 90th birthday Berry announced that he was back in the studio working on his first new album since 1979’s “Rock It”. The album entitled “Chuck” is still set to be released this year. While fans eagerly awaits his swan song, hip hop musicians pay hommage to the man many say paved the way for them today.
Rest in Paradise Mr. Berry. Here’s a look back Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and the kind of guitar riff that earned a mention in the movie “Back to the Future”and a nod to the talent that made a little wayward boy from Missouri into a music legend.