ST. CHARLES, Mo. (CBSNewYork/CBS News/AP) — Chuck Berry — the pioneering singer, songwriter, guitarist who is considered by many to be the “father of rock and roll” — has died.
He was 90 years old.
St. Charles County, Missouri police said they were called after Berry was unresponsive by his caretaker in his home early Saturday afternoon. First responders administered life-saving techniques, but Berry could not be revived and was pronounced dead at 1:26 p.m. local time, police said.
Berry’s death was also announced on his official Facebook page.
The first inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Berry was one of the influential early stars of the genre. With his guitar and a killer stage presence, he mixed country, blues and R&B to create a wholly unique sound.
“Chuck Berry was a rock and roll original. A gifted guitar player, an amazing live performer, and a skilled songwriter whose music and lyrics captured the essence of 1950s teenage life,” The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame said in a statement.
In addition to his own impressive catalog of hits, musicians from Bob Dylan to John Lennon have called out Berry’s influence on their music. In 2016, Keith Richards told CBS’ “Sunday Morning” that he and Mick Jagger bonded in their school days over a love of Berry.
Richards inducted Berry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, saying that “it’s very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry because I’ve lifted every lick he ever played. This is the gentleman who started it all.”
And Lennon famously once said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name – you might call it Chuck Berry.”
PHOTOS: Remembering Chuck Berry
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born Oct. 18, 1926 in St. Louis. As a child he practiced a bent-leg stride that enabled him to slip under tables, a prelude to the duck walk of his adult years.
His mother Martha, like Johnny B. Goode’s in Berry’s signature song, told him he would make it, and make it big.
A fan of blues, swing and boogie woogie, Berry studied the very mechanics of music and how it was transmitted. As a teenager, he loved to take radios apart and put them back together. Using a Nick Manoloff guitar chord book, he learned how to play the hits of the time. He was fascinated by chord progressions and rhythms, discovering that many songs borrowed heavily from the Gershwins’ “I Got Rhythm.”
He began his musical career at age 15 when he went on stage at a high school review to do his own version of Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ the Blues.” Berry would never forget the ovation he received.
“Long did the encouragement of that performance assist me in programming my songs and even their delivery while performing,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I added and deleted according to the audiences’ response to different gestures, and chose songs to build an act that would constantly stimulate my audience.”
Meanwhile, his troubles with the law began, in 1944, when a joy riding trip to Kansas City turned into a crime spree involving armed robberies and car theft. Berry served three years of a 10-year sentence at a reformatory.
A year after his October 1947 release, Berry met and married Themetta Suggs, who stayed by his side despite some of his well-publicized indiscretions.
Berry held factory jobs and received training in hairdressing and cosmetology as he started his new life, according to his Rolling Stone Magazine biography. But he also started sitting in with local bands, and by 1950, he had graduated to a six-string electric guitar and was making his own crude recordings on a reel to reel machine.
Berry’s musical career took off at black jazz clubs in St. Louis, and on New Year’s Eve 1952 at The Cosmopolitan club in East St. Louis, Illinois, boogie-woogie piano master Johnnie Johnson called Berry to fill in for an ailing saxophonist in his Sir John Trio.
“He gave me a break” and his first commercial gig, for $4, Berry later recalled. “I was excited. My best turned into a mess. I stole the group from Johnnie.”
The combo, led by Berry along with Johnson and drummer Ebby Hardy, went on to become a top St. Louis area band, according to Rolling Stone.
Berry met blues legend Muddy Waters in Chicago in 1955, and Waters in turn introduced him to Leonard Chess, owner of Chess Records, Rolling Stone recalled.
Berry played a demo for Chess of an old country song called “Ida Red,” which Chess renamed “Maybellene” and sent to disc jockey Alan Freed, the magazine recalled.
According to Berry, label owner Leonard Chess was taken by the novelty of a “hillbilly song sung by a black man,” an inversion of Elvis Presley’s covers of blues songs.
“Maybellene” — a story of “motor-vatin’ over the hill” in a drag race with a two-timing girlfriend driving a Cadillac — went to the top of the R&B charts and No. 5 on the pop charts.
Berry followed up with legendary hits such as “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” “School Days,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Reelin’ and Rockin,” and “Carol,” among others.
And well before the rise of Bob Dylan, Berry wedded social commentary to the beat and rush of popular music.
“He was singing good lyrics, and intelligent lyrics, in the `50s when people were singing, “Oh, baby, I love you so,”‘ Lennon once observed.
Berry, in his late 20s before his first major hit, crafted lyrics that spoke to the teenagers of the day and remained fresh decades later. His style was influenced by bandleader Louis Jourdan, blues guitarist T-Bone Walker and jazz man Charlie Christian, but also hip to country music, novelty songs and the emerging teen audiences of the post-World War II era.
“Sweet Little Sixteen” captured rock and roll fandom, an early and innocent ode to the young girls later known as “groupies.” (“She’s just got to have about a half a million famed autographs….”)
“School Day” told of the sing-song trials of the classroom (“American history and practical math; you’re studying hard, hoping to pass…”) and the liberation of rock and roll once the day’s final bell rang.
“Roll Over Beethoven” was an anthem to rock’s history-making power (“tell Tchaikovsky the news”), while “Rock and Roll Music” was a guidebook for all bands that followed (“It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it”). “Back in the U.S.A.” was a black man’s straight-faced tribute to his country at a time there was no guarantee Berry would be served at the drive-ins and corner cafes he was celebrating. (“New York, Los Angeles, oh how I yearn for you; Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge.”)
“Everything I wrote about wasn’t about me, but about the people listening,” he once said.
“Johnny B. Goode,” the tale of a guitar-playing country boy whose mother his name someday may be in lights, was Berry’s signature song, the archetypal narrative for would-be rockers and among the most ecstatic recordings in the music’s history. Berry can hardly contain himself as the words hurry out (“Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans/Way back up in the woods among the evergreens”) and the downpour of guitar, drums and keyboards amplifies every call of “Go, Johnny Go!”
The song was inspired in part by piano player Johnson, but the story could have easily been Berry’s, Presley’s or countless others’. Commercial calculation made the song universal: Berry had meant to call Johnny a “colored boy,” but changed “colored” to “country,” enabling not only radio play, but musicians of any color to imagine themselves as stars.
“Chances are you have talent,” Berry later wrote of the song. “But will the name and the light come to you? No! You have to go!”
But new legal troubles cut Berry’s stardom short as the 1950s came to a close. In the early 1960s, Berry was sentenced to prison on a conviction of transporting a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.”
As Rolling Stone explained it in their biography of Berry: “He had brought a 14-year-old Spanish-speaking Apache waitress and prostitute from Texas to check hats in his St. Louis nightclub, and after he fired her she complained to the police. Following a blatantly racist first trial, he was found guilty at a second. Berry spent two years in federal prison in Indiana, leaving him embittered.”
Berry did crank out more hits in the 1960s, including “Nadine (Is It You?),” “No Particular Place to Go,” and “You Can Never Tell.”
He continued to perform throughout the late 1960s and 1970s — recording new versions of his early hits and brand new songs such as “Club Nitty Gritty” for Mercury Records. Berry also topped the charts in 1972 with the novelty song “My Ding-a-Ling.”
He released the last studio album released in his lifetime, “Rock It,” in 1979.
Berry was the recipient of numerous honors as the years went on.
“Johnny B. Goode” was the only rock and roll song included on the Voyager Golden Record – which was launched into space in 1977, as noted on Berry’s website.
In 1979, Berry performed for President Jimmy Carter at the White House.
Berry received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement in 1984, and two years later became the first group of inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was also awarded a Kennedy Center honor by President Bill Clinton in 2000.
But Berry also had more run-ins with the law. Tax charges came in 1979, and another three-year prison sentence, all but 120 days of which was suspended. Later, some former female employees later sued him for allegedly videotaping them in the bathroom of his restaurant. The cases were settled in 1994, after Berry paid $1.3 million.
“Every 15 years, in fact, it seems I make a big mistake,” Berry acknowledged in his memoir.
Still, echoing the lyrics of his 1959 song “Back in the U.S.A.,” Berry said: “There’s no other place I would rather live, including Africa, than America. I believe in the system.”
Berry influenced nearly every major recording artist, but some stars covered him too well. The Beach Boys borrowed the melody of “Sweet Little Sixteen” for their surf anthem “Surfin’ U.S.A.” without crediting Berry.
The Beatles had earlier recorded cover versions of “Rock and Roll Music” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” But their latter-day hit “Come Together,” written by Lennon, was close enough to Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” to inspire a lawsuit by music publisher Morris Levy.
In an out of court settlement, Lennon agreed to record “You Can’t Catch Me” for his 1975 “Rock n’ Roll” album.
Berry himself was accused of theft. In 2000, Johnson sued Berry over royalties and credit he believed he was due for the songs they composed together over more than 20 years of collaboration.
The lawsuit was dismissed two years later, but Richards was among those who believed Johnson had been cheated, writing in his memoir “Life” that Johnson set up the arrangements for Berry and was so essential to the music that many of Berry’s songs were recorded in keys more suited for the piano.
Openly money-minded, Berry was an entrepreneur with a St. Louis nightclub and, in a small town west of there, property he dubbed Berry Park, which included a home, guitar-shaped swimming pool, restaurant, cottages and concert venue. He declined to have a regular band and instead used local musicians, willing to work cheap. Bruce Springsteen was among those who had an early gig backing Berry.
Burned by an industry that demanded a share of his songwriting credits, Berry was deeply suspicious of even his admirers, as anybody could tell from watching him give Richards the business in “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
For the movie’s concerts, he confounded Richards by playing songs in different keys and tempos than they had been in rehearsal. Richards would recall turning to his fellow musicians and shrugging, “Wing it, boys.”
Richards organized the well-received 1987 documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which culminated in a concert at St. Louis’ Fox Theatre to celebrate Berry’s 60th birthday. The movie featured Eric Clapton, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, who recalled being told by his own mother that Berry, not he, was the true king of rock ‘n’ roll.
While Berry had stayed out of the studio life in his later decades, he continued to perform – touring the world well into his 80s. Berry also performed monthly for many years in his hometown of St. Louis at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room, a 340-person club named after what else but Berry’s duck walk.
Vernon Reid, founder and primary songwriter of the band Living Colour, told WCBS 880 that Berry’s innovation and stage presence were a major influence for his group and so many other musicians.
“I would say that the influence of Chuck Berry’s foundation – he is credited with being sort of the first guitarist-singer-songwriter. He revolutionized the style, and we owe him a huge debt.”
Reid also talked about playing with Berry himself.
“It was very awe-inspiring. I played with Mr. Berry at the legendary Apollo Theater, and I was pretty much scared to death, but he was super cool, and I also played in a performance honoring him a couple years back at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland,” Reid said, “and that was a great honor to be part of so many great musicians honoring him.”
Reid added, “Rock and roll lost its dad – that’s what I feel.”
Meanwhile, Berry’s passing drew tributes from around the music world and beyond.
The Rolling Stones’ Jagger wrote in a multi-part tweet: “I am so sad to hear of Chuck Berry’s passing. I want to thank him for all the inspirational music he gave to us. He lit up our teenage years, and blew life into our dreams of being musicians and performers. His lyrics shone above others and threw a strange light on the American dream. Chuck you were amazing and your music is engraved inside us forever.”
The Stones’ Richards tweeted: “One of my big lights has gone out.”
Other celebrities from Ringo Starr to Arnold Schwarzenegger also tweeted tributes.
On his 90th birthday last October, Berry announced plans for the release this year of “Chuck,” his first new album in 38 years.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)