Chuck Berry – guitarist, singer, songwriter – has died, aged 90. An iconoclast in the musical revolution which shaped rhythm and blues into rock ‘n’ roll, his contribution to musical history is undeniable.
In the early ‘50s, children of baby boomers were tired of their parents’ Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Benny Goodman records. They started to listen to rhythm and blues – already very familiar to the US’s black population – much to the total horror of their parents. This sudden, surging, combined desire for wilder and louder music that you could dance to led to mixed race dance parties, and pushed three black artists to the absolute heights of popularity: Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry. (They’d be followed by white artists with a similar sound, like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley & His Comets.)
Berry’s lyrics focused on exciting elements of teen life; his break-out hit Maybellene is about drag racing and infidelity, detailing a man in his V8 Ford who chases his unfaithful gal driving her Cadillac Coup De Ville. By the end of 1955, the record had sold one million copies and four cover versions had already been recorded and released by other artists eager to get on the runaway rock ‘n’ roll train. (The song has since been covered by more than 70 performers, most notably Elvis Presley and Johnny Rivers.)
On Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show in 1987, Berry described his sound thusly: "The main guy was Louis Jordan. I wanted to sing like Nat Cole, with lyrics like Louis Jordan with the swing of Bennie Goodman with Charlie Christian on guitar, playing Carl Hogan's riffs, with the soul of Muddy Waters.” In 1977, Berry’s track Johnny B. Goode was included on the Voyager Golden Records – phonograph records sent into interstellar space aboard the Voyager spacecraft, intended to show any intelligent lifeform which may find them all about life and culture on earth. Johnny B. Goode is also the song Marty McFly plays at the school prom in Back To The Future, during which Marvin Berry eagerly calls his cousin Chuck to tell him he's found "that new sound."
Born in 1926 in St Louis, Missouri to a middle-class family, Berry performed with his guitar locally as a kid; as a teen he was sent to reformatory school after an armed robbery conviction, but upon release three years later he married and worked in an auto parts factory. In 1955 he travelled to Chicago and met Muddy Waters, recorded Maybellene, and a lucrative recording and touring career began. In 1962 he was jailed for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines. He was released a year later and again enjoyed success on the charts and the live show circuit. Berry was among the first artists to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1986. Berry died in St Charles County, Missouri, on March 18th 2017. He was 90 years old.