Chuck Berry, a visionary performer, songwriter and guitarist who was one of the primary architects of rock & roll, has died. He was 90.
The St. Louis native is responsible for genre-defining smashes like “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Maybellene,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and plenty others. His finest work whipped rhythm & blues, country and pop into an irresistible, rhapsodic, witty confection that hit the heart, mind and feet simultaneously.
Berry’s influence on subsequent generations of rockers, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and The Who, is incalculable. His distinctive onstage “duck walk” set a high early bar for rock-guitar theatrics. The New York Times referred to him as rock’s “master theorist and conceptual genius.”
"If you tried to give rock and roll another name," John Lennon once said, "you might call it 'Chuck Berry.'"
"Chuck Berry was arguably the founding father of rock and roll," reads a statement from Recording Academy topper Neil Portnow. "Not just because he was one of its greatest songwriters and established some of the electric guitar's earliest and most memorable riffs, but also because he was one of music's most palpably exciting entertainers and biggest personalities. His influence on the giants that followed him, such as the Beatles, Beach Boys and many others, is well documented. Chuck received a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Recording Academy in 1984, our formal acknowledgment of his immeasurable contributions to American culture. He will be greatly missed, but the gift of his music will live on forever."
Born in 1926 to a middle-class family and enthralled by the blues and jazz at an early age, Charles Edward Anderson Berry hooked up with Chess Records in the mid-'50s. He scored his biggest hits during the remainder of that decade but ended up in trouble with law and went to prison for Mann Act violations in the early ‘60s (more brushes with the law would follow). Upon his release he launched killer songs “No Particular Place to Go,” “You Never Can Tell” (later memorably used in Pulp Fiction) and “Nadine,” among others. He did not have a #1 record until the novelty song "My Ding-a-Ling" topped the chart in 1972.
Though Berry’s career was almost entirely based on live performance thereafter, he remained a vital live act and a muse to younger artists like Keith Richards, who played a prominent part in the 1987 Berry documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. However, a new album was said to be imminent before his passing. It was to have been dedicated to Themetta, aka Toddy, his wife of 68 years.
The Rolling Stones wrote in a statement, "He was a true pioneer of rock & roll and a massive influence on us. Chuck was not only a brilliant guitarist, singer and performer, but most importantly, he was a master craftsman as a songwriter. His songs will live forever."
On Monday morning (3/19), Berry's Definitive Collection had reached #7 at iTunes, and several of his greatest hits had begun moving up the singles Top 200. Not surprisingly, BuzzAngle reported, Berry albums sales increased by 9,581% after news of his death hit the wires, while song sales jumped 11,684%. "Johnny B. Goode" was the most downloaded song with about 4.3k sales (+10,330%).
He was among the first class inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1986, and appears on countless lists of the greatest artists and songs in rock history.
Indeed, having ruled the earth with his joyous noise, Berry even conquered the stars—his music was part of a package of earthly culture assembled and fired into space with 1977's Voyager Golden Record. As Steve Martin quipped on Saturday Night Live, the response from the extraterrestrials was brief and to the point: “Send more Chuck Berry.”
We have lost a giant.
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