Chuck Berry, pioneer rock'n'roll guitarist, dies at age of 90

Alan Yuhas
Blues singer and rock’n’roll pioneer Chuck Berry has died at age 90. Photograph: Marc Andrew Deley/Getty Images

The legendary guitarist Chuck Berry, who merged blues and swing into the phenomenon of early rock’n’roll, died on Saturday aged 90, according to Missouri police.

St Charles County police said in a post on Facebook they responded to a medical emergency at a home at approximately 12.40pm local time.

“Inside the home, first responders observed an unresponsive man and immediately administered lifesaving techniques,” the police department said. “Unfortunately, the 90-year-old man could not be revived and was pronounced deceased at 1.26pm.”

Officer Nate Bolin confirmed to the Guardian that Berry, whose full name was Charles Edward Anderson Berry Sr, had died.

The department said Berry’s family has requested privacy “during this time of bereavement”.

Musicians of all genres and ages paid tribute to Berry. “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived,” said Bruce Springsteen, who played with one of Berry’s pick-up bands before achieving his own fame.

“Thou Shall Have No Other Rock Gods Before Him,” the drummer and producer Questlove wrote. “His lyrics shone above others & threw a strange light on the American dream,” said Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger. “Chuck you were amazing [and] your music is engraved inside us forever.”

Berry was born the son of a deacon in a middle-class neighborhood of St Louis in 1926, and picked up the guitar in high school, playing at parties and developing his flourishes as a performer. He later said that it was during childhood that he began his signature dance, eventually dubbed “the duck walk” for its bent knees and stutter step.

As a teenager he was arrested for attempted robbery and served three years in reform school, after which he worked in an assembly line at a General Motors factory.

Chuck Berry seen circa 1958. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

He turned to music full-time in the 1950s, when he formed a trio with a dummer, Ebby Harding, and keyboardist Johnnie Johnson, with whom he rose through St Louis clubs while working on the side as a hairdresser.

His break came in 1955 when he met blues musician Muddy Waters and producer Leonard Chess in Chicago, and for the rest of the decade Berry blended the country and blues songs of the south with pop sensibilities starting to echo on the radio.

He recorded some of his most famous hits in the 1950s, including Rock & Roll Music, Roll Over Beethoven, Johnny B Goode, Maybellene and School Days.

Berry’s music was a hugely influential figure for generations of rock musicians who followed him, many of whom recognized him during their lifetimes. “If you had to give rock’n’roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry,” John Lennon famously said.

On Saturday, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr wrote on Twitter: “RIP. And peace and love Chuck Berry Mr rock’n’roll music.”

The Rolling Stones guitarist Kieth Richards developed a contentious relationship with Berry, whom the rock star idolized. Richards said Berry punched him for touching his guitar in the 1960s – and later apologized. In an incident recorded in the 1987 film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, Berry and Richards bickered in rehearsal over playing lead. The younger guitarist eventually backed down.

In the same film, Berry recalled a squabble with another rock legend, Jerry Lee Lewis. “We got in a fight – that’s when we become friends,” Berry said. “He whupped my butt.” Asked how the fight started, Lewis answered: “He said he was king of rock and roll, I said I was.”

When Berry was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a year earlier, Richards spoke in his honor.

“It’s very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry ’cause I lifted every lick he ever played,” Richards said. “This is the gentleman who started it all, as far as I’m concerned.”

In 1959, Berry was arrested in St Louis on charges relating to a 14-year-old girl, whom authorities said he had transported across state lines for the purposes of prostitution.

He was convicted two years later, after an initial conviction was dismissed because of a judge’s repeated racial slurs, and spent 20 months in prison, an experience which his friends said changed the musician’s demeanor.

Remembering a 1964 tour with Berry, the guitarist Carl Perkins told a journalist he “never saw a man so changed”. “He had been an easygoing guy before, the kinda guy who’d jam in dressing rooms, sit and swap licks and jokes,” Perkins said. “In England he was cold, real distant and bitter.

“It wasn’t just jail. It was those years of one-nighters: grinding it out like that can kill a man. But I figure it was mostly jail.”

Chuck Berry poses with President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair in June 1997. Photograph: White House/AFP/Getty Images

In 1972, he released his only No1 single, My Ding-a-Ling. He continued playing sporadic concerts, often with the most famous rock stars of each era. Alongside his continued success, though, Berry continued running afoul of authorities.

In 1979 he faced tax evasion charges, for which he served four months in prison. In 1990, police raided his home and found marijuana, weapons and videos of women using a restroom: 59 women accused him that year of planting a video camera in the bathroom at his Missouri restaurant. He plead guilty to a misdemeanor drug charge and settled the class action for a reported $1.2m in 1994.

Berry continued touring through his 60s, 70s and 80s, although his health sometimes forced him to cancel shows or, once, to be escorted off stage. In 2000, he received the Kennedy Center Honors Award from Bill Clinton, at whose inauguration he had performed in 1993.

In 2016, he announced his first studio album since 1979, to be titled Chuck and featuring his children on guitar and harmonica.

“My darlin’ I’m growing old,” Berry said in a press release for the record, speaking to Toddy Berry, his wife of 68 years. “I’ve worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”

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