Chuck Berry dies at 90, a founding father of rock 'n' roll
Berry was part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s inaugural induction class in 1986. He received a lifetime achievement Grammy in 1984, was named to the Kennedy Center Honors in 2000 and received Sweden’s prestigious Polar Music Prize in 2014.
A recording of “Johnny B. Goode” was included among the cultural artifacts installed on the two Voyager space probes launched in 1977. On a subsequent “Saturday Night Live” sketch, comedian Steve Martin reported on the first communication from distant aliens: “Send more Chuck Berry.”
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born Oct. 18, 1926, in St. Louis, one of six children. His mother, Martha, was a teacher, and his father, Henry, was a carpenter whose enthusiasm for poetry and other literature made a deep impression on his children.
The family enjoyed a relatively comfortable life in the black neighborhood known as the Ville, but Berry did encounter racism in other parts of town — he once recalled being turned away from the Fox Theatre downtown when he tried to buy a movie ticket.
Berry sang in a choir at a Baptist church and in the high school glee club. His taste for entertaining was sharpened when he turned in a well-received performance of “Confessin’ the Blues” at a high school talent show, and he soon took up the guitar.
When Berry was 17, he and two friends stole a car and robbed three businesses in Kansas City, Mo. Berry received the maximum sentence of 10 years. Inside the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men in Algoa, Mo., he sang in a gospel group and learned to box, and he was released after serving three years.
Back in St. Louis, he worked at an auto plant and as a hairdresser, and supplemented his income by playing guitar in local bands. He married Themetta “Toddy” Suggs in 1948, and he and his wife would have four children.
Berry admired traditional pop standards and such singers as Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, and he loved big-band music and jump blues, especially the entertaining, often comedic brand of Louis Jordan. Jordan’s guitarist Carl Hogan was one of Berry’s instrumental models, along with Charlie Christian and blues stars Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker.
Berry joined the Sir John Trio in 1952, teaming for the first time with pianist Johnnie Johnson, who would become an indispensable sideman on Berry’s records. They performed blues and ballads, and also adapted country tunes into a “black hillbilly” style that proved very popular. They started drawing big crowds at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis, Ill., and the band’s name was soon changed to the Chuck Berry Trio as the singer-guitarist asserted his dominance.
Despite being stung by racial prejudice in his life, Berry basked in a positive vision of his country in his songs. “New York, Los Angeles, oh how I yearn for you,” he sang in “Back in the U.S.A.,” longing from abroad for the place “where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day.”
Berry also tested the waters of social commentary. “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” a playful but potent statement of racial pride, opened with the wry line, “Arrested on charges of unemployment ….”
And “Too Much Monkey Business,” with its torrent of complaints (“Runnin’ to and fro / Hard workin’ at the mill / Never fail, in the mail / Yeah, come a rotten bill”), expressed the frustrations of a beleaguered breadwinner with a comical edge.
Berry showed that pop could be art, but he always insisted he was being merely pragmatic.
“I wrote about cars because half the people had cars, or wanted them,” he said in a 2002 interview with London’s Independent newspaper. “I wrote about love, because everyone wants that. I wrote songs white people could buy, because that’s nine pennies out of every dime. That was my goal: to look at my bank book and see a million dollars there.”
Berry had opened a nightclub and was riding high in 1959 when he was charged with violating the Mann Act, a federal law that prohibits the interstate transport of women for “immoral purposes.” The prosecution stemmed from Berry’s relationship with 14-year-old Janice Escalante, whom he had met in Juarez, Mexico, and brought to St. Louis. When he fired her from her job as a hat checker at the club, she went to the police.
Berry’s first conviction was voided because of racially based misconduct by the judge, but he was convicted in a second trial and sentenced to three years in prison in October 1961.
Many felt that Berry’s race and his history of relationships with white women were a factor in the prosecution. Racial dynamics would be a subtext throughout his career, in which he helped bring down the black-white divisions in popular music and specifically set out to appeal to a white audience.
“He was a rebel, a guy who was incredibly complex, unbelievably thorny, and through his own headstrong nature and his own appetites was truly punished for his rebellion,” said Hackford, who formed a stormy relationship with Berry when he directed the 1987 documentary.
“He had the audacity to be a black man who wanted to get out there and perform for white kids and seduce white women, and he did, and he was punished for it,” Hackford said. “... If rock ’n’ roll wants to lay claim to the music of rebellion, he led the charge.”
Berry was released after 20 months and returned to the charts with three more notable songs: “Nadine (Is It You?),” “No Particular Place to Go” and “Promised Land.”
That was the end of his significant record-making (his only No. 1 hit would come in 1972 with the risqué novelty cover “My Ding-a-Ling.”) But with the British Invasion bringing new attention to his legacy, Berry was a popular touring attraction. He appeared in the famed 1964 TAMI Show concert film, and as the decade proceeded he adapted to the counterculture’s festival and ballroom conventions.
He also collected cars and invested shrewdly in St. Louis real estate, and, less shrewdly, opened an amusement park called Berry Park. When it failed, the estate became Berry’s home and headquarters. (“I wanted it to be like Disneyland or Six Flags,” he once said, “but it turned out to be One Flag.”)
In the 1970s he participated in rock ’n’ roll revival tours, and after ending his relationship with his longtime band, including pianist Johnson, he began his practice of hiring a local group to wing it behind him in each city. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band once had the honor in their early days, but the overall result was inconsistency, and Berry’s reputation suffered.
He played himself in the 1978 film “American Hot Wax,” which told the story of disc jockey Freed. Hackford’s documentary, in which Keith Richards led an all-star band behind Berry in concert with such guests as Clapton and Linda Ronstadt, put him back in the spotlight. Although Berry spoke periodically about recording new material, nothing came of it.
But he kept playing, making a monthly appearance at the Blueberry Hill club in St. Louis as recently as this summer.
There were more legal dramas. He served four months in federal prison in Lompoc in 1979 for income tax evasion. In 1990, 60 women sued him for allegedly videotaping them in the bathroom of a restaurant at Berry Park. Berry denied the charges but paid a settlement. And in 2000, Johnson sued him for royalties and credit, claiming the pianist had co-written Berry’s hits. The court ruled against Johnson, who died in 2005.
Mike Campbell, lead guitarist for Tom Petty’s band the Heartbreakers and himself one of the most respected rock guitarists of the last 40 years, spoke as a fan on Saturday when he said in a statement: “My heart is broken to hear Chuck is gone. He was my first and greatest inspiration.”
“Luckily, I met him once,” Campbell noted. “Shaking his hand was like slipping into a huge, warm baseball glove. The world will always remember and honor his amazing talent … writing, singing, playing guitar, and creating a genre — rock and roll. He is the true genius who paved the way for all those who chase the rock and roll dream. His music will never die.”
Invoking the title of Berry’s sequel to perhaps his most iconic hit, “Johnny B. Goode,” Campbell concluded, “Bye Bye, Johnny B. Goode.”
Times staff writer Randy Lewis contributed to this report.
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