Chuck Berry, Rock 'n' Roll Pioneer and Icon, Dead at 90

St Charles County Police confirmed the news on Saturday afternoon.

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Mar 18 2017, 10:27pm

Chuck Berry, the pioneering rock 'n' roll musician, has died at the age of 90. St Charles County Police confirmed the news this afternoon

Berry was one of the first artists to catalyze rhythm and blues into rock 'n' roll music in the 1950s, drawing country and blues sounds together in his guitar licks and imbuing his performances with a radical and joyful showmanship. His lyrics, focused on pop culture and teenage hedonism with an eye on American idealism, came through on a string of hits in the 1950s, including 1956's "Roll Over Beethoven", 1957's "Rock and Roll Music," and 1958's "Johnny B. Goode," all released on Chess Records.

Born Charles Edward Anderson Berry on October 18, 1926 to a middle-class family in an African-American enclave of St Louis called "The Ville," Berry demonstrated an interest in music and photography as a child. But it wasn't until his mid-20s, after he'd spent a three-year stint in reform school for armed robbery, been released, and settled down with a wife and two children, that Berry decided to pursue music seriously. He played in a number of blues groups in St Louis, borrowing much of his style from the expressive blues musician T-Bone Walker, before joining Jonnie Johnson's trio in 1953, finding a wider audience with a combination of blues, country, and ballads.

Berry's career changed radically in 1955 when he met Muddy Waters on a trip through Chicago. It was Waters who suggested that Berry contact Leonard Chess of Chess Recordings, who he suggested would be keen on Berry's blues style. It was one of the songs that Berry brought to his audition, a variation on an old country song called "Ida Red," that unexpectedly caught Chess's ear. "[Chess] couldn't believe that a country tune (he called it a 'hillbilly song') could be written and sung by a black guy," Berry wrote in his 1987 autobiography. Recorded and renamed "Maybellene," the track went on to sell over a million records in 1955.

Berry scored hits throughout the 1950s with 1956's "Roll Over Beethoven," 1957's "Rock and Roll Music," and 1958's "Johnny B. Goode" all breaking into the Top 10 on the Billboard Charts. By the end of the decade, he was hugely popular and financially comfortable, touring the country and playing to large audiences.

In 1961, however, Berry was arrested under the Mann act for transporting Janice Norine Escalanti, a 14-year-old Native American girl, across state lines. Despite claiming that he'd brought Escalanti back to Missouri with the intention of hiring her to work at one of his clubs, Club Bandstand, he was arrested after a second trial and served almost two years in prison.

Berry left prison a changed man, embittered by his experience. But he was acutely aware of the influence that his music had had on a nascent rock 'n' roll scene, with bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys clearly indebted to his style. For a short time after his release, continued to craft and put out bold, hedonistic tracks, particularly 1964's "You Never Can Tell."

He took a three-year hiatus from Chess starting in 1966, releasing weaker records and revisiting older work. But after returning in 1969, he rediscovered his form with tracks like "Tulane" and achieved his only Number One record in 1972 with the novelty song "My Ding-a-Ling."

Berry continued to perform in his later years. In 2016, he announced that he would be releasing his first album in four decaes.

Berry is survived by his wife of 69 years, Themetta "Toddy" Berry, and four children.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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