Chuck Berry, the Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll, dies at 90

Chuck Berry in 2013 (©PABLO PORCIUNCULA/AFP)

Rock ‘n’ Roll legend just like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley or Bill Haley, Chuck Berry marked the history of this musical genre by his rousing rhythms and his unbeatable footwork. He passed away on March 18, 2017 in Wentzville (St. Charles county, Missouri).

Charles Edward Anderson “Chuck” Berry was born on October 18, 1926 in St. Louis (Missouri). Considered as one of the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll music and nicknamed the “father of rock ‘n’ roll”, Chuck Berry was a guitarist, singer and songwriter. He was the fourth child of a family of six and grew up in St. Louis. His father, Henry William Berry was a deacon in a Baptist church and his mother, Martha Bell was a public school principal. He was initiated at a young age to music thanks to his parents who used to go and sing at church. In 1944, Chuck Berry was arrested for robbery in three shops in Kansas City (Missouri). He married in October 1948 Themetta “Toddy” Suggs, with whom he had four children: Darlin Ingrid, Chuck Junior, Aloha and Melody.

The late 1950’s: Chuck Berry’s most successful years

After doing several odd jobs from the end of the 1940’s to the beginning of the 1950’s, while playing with local bands in St. Louis’s clubs, Berry’s career really began in the 1950’s, when he formed a trio with Ebby Harding and Johnnie Johnson. His career took off in 1955, when he was 29 years old. He then met Muddy Waters, a musician and Leonard Chess, a producer, in Chicago. The 1950’s marked successful years for Chuck Berry with the release of some of his most famous songs such as “Maybellene” in 1955, “Rock & Roll Music” and “School Days” (also known as “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)”) in 1957, “Johnny B. Goode” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” in 1958. However, Berry has always been followed by a delinquent life. In the 1960’s, he was arrested after allegations saying he had had intercourse with a 14-year-old girl, Janice Escalante. He was sentenced to five years in prison in 1960. During his time in jail, Chuck Berry wrote and composed another one of his most famous songs, “You Never Can Tell”, which was released in 1964, and was mainly popularized by Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (released in 1994), with the now famous scene where Uma Thurman and John Travolta dance together to the song. Famous for his way of singing with a really articulated pronunciation, Chuck Berry also was known for his footwork. He indeed popularized the famous duckwalk – where the performer moves forward jumping on one leg and swings the other one back and forth. His songs mainly made people want to dance and sing along, and were often aimed at teenagers – with subjects on teen life and consumerism.

“If you had to give Rock ‘n’ Roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’”

Throughout his career, Chuck Berry received many awards and honors. In 1984, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his entire career. He also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1986, becoming one of the first musicians to receive one. In 2000, he received the Kennedy Center Honors and in 2003, Rolling Stone magazine labeled him the 6th best guitarist of all time and 25th best singer of all time. Chuck Berry, from the beginning of his career, always inspired generations of rock bands and musicians. In 1972, John Lennon said the now famous statement: “If you had to give Rock ‘n’ Roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’”, on the Mike Douglas TV Show. Considered as the best rock ‘n’ roll singer and performer by The Rolling Stones, Lenny Kravitz, Sir Rod Stewart, The Beatles and many others, many singers paid tribute to him at the time of his death.

Many artists tweeted in tribute to Berry. Bruce Springsteen wrote “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived” while Lenny Kravitz wrote “Hail Hail Chuck Berry!!! None of us would have been here without you. Rock on brother!”. Sir Rod Stewart, still on Twitter, confirmed Chuck Berry’s inspiration on Rock ‘n’ Roll artists: “It started with Chuck Berry. He inspired us all” before continuing on his own experience with his music: “The 1st album I bought was Chuck’s “Live at the Tivoli” and I was never the same”. Keith Richards, the guitarist of The Rolling Stones, who has always been a great fan of Chuck Berry and who took his inspiration from him, wrote on Facebook: “One of my big lights has gone out!”.

Chuck Berry : hail hail hail ! Rock'n'roll
Chuck Berry and Keith Richards in 1986 (© Rue des Archives/BCA)

Many of Chuck Berry’s most famous songs have been sung by other people since the beginning of his career until today. He died in his house in Wentzville, in St. Charles county (Missouri), on March 18, 2017, where he was found unresponsive by police officers. He was 90 years old.

Julie Beaurain

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