Rock ‘n’ roll star
Born: October 18, 1926;
Died: March 18, 2017
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CHUCK Berry, who has died aged 90, was one of the founding heroes of rock ‘n’ roll who blasted onto the scene in the 1950s with a distinctive form of rebellious and intelligent rock. His music inspired a generation of musicians, including Elvis, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. “If you tried to give rock and roll another name,” John Lennon once said, “you might call it Chuck Berry."
Unlike those that followed him, Berry did not have a particularly long recording career – partly because of his complicated and controversial personal life which included spells in prison. In fact, his core repertoire was some three dozen songs, including Roll Over Beethoven, his tribute to rock itself, his signature tune Johnny B Goode, and his only number one, My Ding-a-Ling.
He was in his late 20s before his first major hit, but the music immediately spoke to teenagers of the day. Elvis may have given rock its libidinous, hip-shaking image, but Berry was the auteur, setting the template for a new sound and way of life. Well before the rise of Bob Dylan, Berry wedded social commentary to the beat and rush of popular music.
Johnny B Goode, the tale of a guitar-playing country boy whose mother tells him he will be a star, was inspired in part by Johnnie Johnson, the boogie-woogie piano master who collaborated on many of Berry hits, but the story could have easily been Berry's or Presley's.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in St Louis on October 18 1926 to parents Henry and Martha and learned to play guitar as a teenager.
His first public performance was as a 15-year-old at a high school event, where he chose to cover Confessin' the Blues by Jay McShann, a blues song deemed an unusual choice at such an occasion.
The rendition received thunderous applause and signalled the beginning of a monumental career in music. Berry wrote in his autobiography: "Long did the encouragement of that performance assist me in programming my songs and even their delivery while performing.
"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."
Berry studied the mechanics of music and how it was transmitted. As a teenager, he loved to take radios apart and put them back together. But he also began to develop his performance skills. As a child he practised a bent-leg stride that enabled him to slip under tables, a prelude to the trademark "duck walk" of his adult years.
His path to musical stardom was not without trouble though - in 1944, while still at school, he was sent to a prison for young offenders to serve three years for armed robbery.
Upon his release in 1947, he worked on the production line at a factory and studied hairdressing and cosmetology in the evenings.
He formed a trio with drummer Ebby Harding and pianist Johnnie Johnson in 1952, playing gigs in St Louis, before signing a record contract with Chicago's Chess records in 1955.
With his first song - Maybellene - he created a top 10 hit for the national charts and a string of classics followed. Influenced by bandleader Louis Jordan and blues guitarist T-Bone Walker among others, Maybellene reworked the country song Ida Red and his hit was a rare achievement for a black artist at that time.
Other hits followed, including Roll Over Beethoven, and Sweet Little Sixteen. Among his other songs were Nadine, Let it Rock, Almost Grown and the racy novelty number My Ding-A-Ling, which topped the charts in 1972, his only No. 1 single, which was recorded in Britain.
The recording happened during Berry’s tour of the UK when he was performing at the Locarno Ballroom in Coventry. Berry's performance of the Dave Bartholomew novelty song was recorded live, and he split the audience into gender groups with the girls singing "I want you to play with" followed by the boys singing "My Ding A-Ling".
My Ding A-Ling's lyrics drew scorn from moral guardian Mary Whitehouse, but was a hit with fans and took the number one spot in both the UK and US charts. The song was Berry's first - and only - record to make it to number one. It was originally 11.28 minutes long on The London Chuck Berry Sessions album, but was cut down to 4.13 minutes for the single.
It stayed in the US charts for a year, and the follow up song - Reelin' 'n' Rockin', which was also recorded at Coventry - made it to number 18 in the UK and 27 in the US charts.
Berry apparently had no idea that the concert was being recorded. He referred to the show at the time as the defining moment in his career.
The Coventry show over-ran and fans were urged to leave the venue by a compere - a recording of which made it onto the Johnny B Goode live track.
Berry now had worldwide success but there were problems in his personal life. His troubles had begun in 1944, when a joyriding trip to Kansas City turned into a crime spree involving armed robberies and car theft.
In the early 1960s, his career was also nearly destroyed when he was indicted for violating the Mann Act, which barred transportation of a minor across state lines for "immoral purposes".
There were two trials, the first so racist that a guilty verdict was struck down, and the second leading to prison time, 18 months of a three-year term.
Berry continued to record after getting out of prison, and his legacy was duly honoured by the Beatles and the Stones, but his hit-making days were essentially over.
Tax charges came in 1979, based on Berry's insistence that he receive his concert fees in cash, and another three-year prison sentence, all but 120 days of which was suspended.
Some former female employees sued him for allegedly videotaping them in the toilet of his restaurant. The cases were settled in 1994, after Berry paid 1.3 million dollars.
Berry had several more brushes with the law, serving a 100-day jail term for tax evasion in 1979 and receiving a suspended sentence for possessing marijuana in 1990.
He said in his memoir: "Every 15 years, in fact, it seems I make a big mistake."
Away from music, Berry was an entrepreneur with a St Louis nightclub and 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, wherever he performed. Springsteen was among those who had an early gig backing Berry.
His influence on other musicians never faded. In 1963 the Beatles covered Roll Over Beethoven, while the Rolling Stones first single released that year was a version of Berry's Come On. The Stones also performed and recorded Around And Around, Let It Rock and others. Other artists who have recorded Berry songs include Emmylou Harris (You Never Can Tell) and AC/DC (School Days).
When Nasa launched the unmanned Voyager I in 1977, an album was stored on the craft that would explain music on Earth to extraterrestrials. The one rock song included was Johnny B Goode.
In 1984, Berry was presented with a Grammy Award lifetime achievement prize and he was among the first to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, along with Presley, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and others.
In the 1990s, Berry began giving monthly concerts in the intimate setting of the Duck Room of the Blueberry Hill club in St Louis, drawing visitors from around the world. At times he was joined by his son, guitarist Charles Berry Jr, and daughter, Ingrid Berry Clay, on vocals and harmonica.
In spite of his age, he continued to perform into his later years, appearing at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in 1994 and even touring as recently as 2014. At the time of his death the 90-year-old music veteran was said to be working on a new album.
Berry is survived by his wife Themetta Suggs-Berry, who he met one year after his release from prison in 1947, and four children.