Chuck Berry, Rock and Roll Pioneer

Posted by Speakeasy News > Wednesday 22 March 2017 > In the News

Some say he invented rock and roll. He was certainly one of the first to popularise it. Chuck Berry has died, practically guitar in hand, at the age of 90.

His 1955 song "Maybellene" was a top five hit a year before Elvis Presley hit Number One with his first single, "Heartbreak Hotel". It already had the new sound that would be dubbed "rock 'n' roll". When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation was created in 1986, Berry was one of the first inductees to be honoured nine years before the Hall of Fame found a permanent home in Cleveland, Ohio. The induction citation said,

"While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together."

It was presented by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who claimed he learned everything he knew from Berry.

Berry's songwriting, vocals, guitar riff and electric stage presence led to a string of hits, many of which remain classics to this day, like "Roll Over Beethoven", "Johnny B. Goode" and "You Never Can Tell".

Despite Elvis's music being criticised for being "too black", Chuck Berry slotted comfortably into the mainly white Billboard charts, and he soon earned enough to open an unsegregated nightclub in St Louis, followed later by a country club. Berry wasn't averse to compromise to make sure his music was welcomed into the mainstream. The original words to "Johnny B. Goode" included "that little coloured boy could play". Berry told Rolling Stone magazine that, "I changed it to 'country boy' – or else it wouldn't get on the radio."

Prison Blues
Berry was born into a middle-class black family in St Louis, Missouri, in 1926 but as a teenager he served three years in juvenile prison for armed robbery. In 1959, just as his career was taking off, he was arrested again, for transporting a teenage runaway over state lines. He again went to prison. But that didn't stop him having more hits through the 1960s, and influencing a new generation of musicians such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys and of course The Rolling Stones.

His recording career waned from the 1970s, but his extraordinary energy onstage meant his live performances continued to sell out. He was performing regularly until close to his death, and on his 90th birthday had promised the release of a new album in 2017, dedicated to his wife of 68 years, Toddy.