Singer-songwriter Chuck Berry, the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer who established the form with his slyly funny, rhythmic hits, such as “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode,” has died. He was 90.
St. Charles County police responded to call. They arrived on the scene where Berry was found unresponsive. He was pronounced dead at 1:26 p.m., according to the police department.
Berry hproduced a series of self-penned singles for the Chicago R&B label Chess Records that successfully crossed over into the pop mainstream.
Berry began playing music professionally in the early 1950s. His style was influenced by the work of ’40s R&B star Louis Jordan’s guitarist Carl Hogan, jazz picker Charlie Christian and bluesman T-Bone Walker.
In spring 1955, Berry went to Chicago, then a regional recording hub, in search of a record deal. Rejected by Vee Jay, he shopped his music to Chess with the support of Muddy Waters, one of the label’s blues stars.
Berry produced his breakthrough hit: a rewrite of a country song recorded in 1938 by Bob Wills, revved up and retitled in a play on the name of a popular mascara brand. “Maybellene,” a car-chase saga with a bounding two-step rhythm and a super-heated guitar sound, vaulted to No. 1 on the R&B chart and crossed to No. 5 on the pop list in the summer of 1955.
Berry’s more adult-themed songs like “Thirty Days” and “No Money Down” found little favor. But the top-30 arrival of the rock ‘n’ roll anthem “Roll Over Beethoven” in 1956 kicked off a run of songs that became classics of the genre.
His 1957-59 hits included “School Day” (No. 3, pop, No. 1 R&B), “Rock & Roll Music” (No. 8 pop, No. 6 R&B), “Sweet Little Sixteen” (No. 2 pop, No. 1 R&B), “Johnny B. Goode” (No. 8 pop, No. 2 R&B), “Carol” (No. 18 pop, No. 9 R&B) and “Almost Grown” (No. 32 pop, No. 3 R&B). Even less popular numbers of the period such as “Sweet Little Rock and Roller,” “Back in the U.S.A.” and the Christmas song “Run Run Rudolph” made their way into the rock canon.
Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry, he was raised in segregated St. Louis’ Ville neighborhood, where he was an indifferent student. At 18, he went on an armed robbery spree with two friends; they were arrested in a stolen car, and Berry was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
During a three-year stint in a Missouri juvenile facility, he sang in a gospel group and played jump blues in a prison band.
Released in 1947, he enrolled in a beauty college; the following year, he wed Themetta Suggs. He supported his family with factory, custodial and hairdressing jobs before embarking on successful music career in the 1950s.
Berry’s career went off the rails in 1961, when he was convicted for violation of the federal Mann Act prohibiting the transportation of a minor across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Busted for employing underage Texas prostitute in his St. Louis club, he received a three-year jail sentence.
Released in 1964, Berry waxed a number of indelible hits at Chess — “Nadine,” “No Particular Place to Go,” “You Never Can Tell,” “Promised Land.” By this time, the stars of the British Invasion had taken his repertoire as their own: the Beatles cut “Rock and Roll Music” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” while the Stones essayed “Come On,” “Carol,” “You Can’t Catch Me” and “Around and Around.” A host of other rock musicians would follow suit with their own covers of his durable material.
In 1966, Berry moved to Mercury Records, where he recut some of his old hits without improvement or success. He began a long campaign of one-nighters during this period, traveling solo with his Gibson from town to town, playing for cash upfront with a succession of pick-up bands. (Bruce Springsteen supported Berry at one New Jersey date.)
Berry returned to Chess in 1968. During this stay, he enjoyed his biggest pop hit — ironically, with a song written by someone else. An edit of a 12-minute concert version of “My Ding-a-Ling,” a salacious sing-along recorded as “Little Girl Ding-a-Ling” in 1952 by New Orleans musician Dave Bartholomew, became his only No. 1 pop single.
In the early 1970s, Berry cashed in on the nostalgic rock ’n’ roll revival of the period by headlining promoter Richard Nader’s package shows featuring the music’s pathfinding stars.
In 1979 — not long after he completed his final album “Rockit” for Atlantic Records — he was sentenced to three months in federal prison for evading taxes on undeclared 1973 income.
Berry’s latter-day life as a rock icon was captured in Taylor Hackford’s 1987 feature “Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll,” an all-star 1986 60th-birthday concert at St. Louis’ Fox Theater at which the Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards served as musical director (and the star’s whipping boy). Berry published his idiosyncratic and not entirely candid memoir “The Autobiography” in 1987.
Eschewing the studios, Berry played dates at his hometown club BlueBerry Hill and paid the bills with gigs at rock and blues festivals. The star was hard to handle, but his legend saw him through professionally until the end of his life. Berry collapsed on stage in the middle of a New Year’s Day 2011 concert at Chicago’s Congress Theater.