While Elvis Presley became the face of Rock ‘N’ Roll, the true genius behind the art form was Chuck Berry. Berry passed in his home last Saturday at the age of 90, leaving behind a legendary influence that stretched far beyond rock music.
Berry was born October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, Mo. The future music legend had a run-in with the law and served three years for armed robbery as a teen. Berry was released on his 21st birthday in 1947. Though he’d been exposed to music as a child, he settled into a normal working man’s life and marriage, but eventually picked up the guitar again.
In the early to mid-fifties, Berry started being acknowledged around town as an adept axeman. Frequent trips to Chicago expanded his world view. Influenced by blues legends like T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters, Berry began refining his own guitar playing in a fusion of R&B, blues and jazz styles. It was these seminal influences that helped Berry craft his 1955 breakout hit, “Maybeline,” which many consider the first true rock ‘n’ roll song.
This would lead to a series of hits for Berry such as “Roll Over, Beethoven,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” among other notable tracks. Another legal snafu occurred in 1963 after Berry was caught shipping a teen prostitute across state lines to St. Louis and did nearly two years of prison. Upon his release in 1963, Berry continued making hits such as “Nadine,” and “You Can Never Tell” among others.
Berry, who was memorialized by Rolling Stones founders Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, is largely credited for inspiring the English bands of the 60’s, particularly the Stones, who often credited early blues musicians and Berry specifically for the inspiration.
Berry’s productivity waned in the ’70’s and he largely coasted on the fame of his earlier work. In 1986, he was among the first to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, but that was just one of many honors. Richards was on hand to pay tribute and present him the award.
In 1984, he was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2000, he was among the honorees at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, and in 2002, he was named a BMI icon for the 50th annual Pop Awards ceremony for the publishing company.
In 2014, Berry, who was a noted lover of poetry, won the PEN New England “Literary Excellence in Song” award at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library alongside the late Leonard Cohen. Among those who handed the gentlemen the award were Smokey Robinson, U2’s Bono, and singer-songwriter Paul Simon.
Berry is survived by his four adult children, including his only son, Chuck Berry Jr., who played in his band.