Legendary musician Chuck Berry, who was central to the development of rock and roll beginning in the ’50s with indelible hits like “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Johnny B. Goode,” died today in St. Charles County, Mo. He was 90 years old. His death was confirmed by the St. Charles County Police department.
Charles Edward Berry grew up in Saint Louis, Mo. the fourth of six children, developing a career that epitomized a bad-boy image which musicians have tried to cop ever since. Berry was the real thing. He spent time in reform school for robbery at 18 (with a nonfunctional pistol, he claimed), went to prison for income tax evasion and transported a minor across state lines for quote “immoral purposes.”
Initially beginning his career as a beautician with an lifelong interest in music, Berry began to slowly ease towards the St. Louis nightlife scene in the early ’50s as a member of the Jonnie Johnson trio. As a solo musician, he emulated the smooth vocals of his idol Nat King Cole and admired the gritty blues of another idol, Muddy Waters.
“And I listened to him for his entire set,” Mr. Berry recalled to NPR in 2000. “When he was over, I went up to him, I asked him for his autograph and told him that I played guitar. ‘How do you get in touch with a record company?’ He said, ‘Why don’t you go see Leonard Chess over on 47th?'”
So early Monday morning, Berry made his way to Chess Records and positioned himself in a store across the street. When Leonard Chess arrived, Berry ran over and made his pitch. Chess was impressed by the young man’s self-confidence and told him to come back with a tape of his own material. Berry returned the following week, bringing with him the other members of the trio, pianist Johnnie Johnson and drummer Eddie Hardy, and four new songs.
Through the late ’50s and ’60s Berry defined the contours of rock and roll and, along with peers like Little Richard and James Brown, the full-throttle energy on stage that this still-developing high-tempo, electrified style of blues required.
Six years ago Berry’s health began to decline, though he maintained his signature defiance even then, refusing an ambulance and leaving the theater on his own after collapsing onstage.
Berry announced a record last October at the age of 90 following a 38-year hiatus. “This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy,” said Berry at this time of its announcement in reference to, Themetta, his wife of 68 years. “My darlin’ I’m growing old! I’ve worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!”
This is a developing story.