Chuck Berry, wild man of rock dies at 90


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Chuck Berry, the perpetual wild man of rock music who helped define its rebellious spirit in the 1950s and was the sly poet laureate of songs about girls, cars, school and even the “any old way you choose it” vitality of the music itself, died March 18 at at his home in St. Charles County, Mo. He was 90.

St. Charles County police announced the death in a Facebook post on its Website, saying officers responded to a medical emergency at Mr. Berry’s home and administered lifesaving techniques but could not revive him. No further information was available.

“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,” reads Mr. Berry’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

 

A seminal figure in early rock music, he was all the rarer still for writing, singing and playing his own music. His songs and the boisterous performance standards he set directly influenced the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and later Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger.

Mr. Berry so embodied the American rock tradition that his recording of “Johnny B. Goode” was included on a disc launched into space on the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1977.

Besides Mr. Berry, members of the rock hall of fame’s inaugural class included Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino and the Everly Brothers. Of those he survived, Mr. Berry remained among the most indefatigable and acclaimed performers, playing concerts all over the world well into his 80s.

Despite John Lennon’s oft-quoted quip — “If you tried to give rock-and-roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’ ” — Mr. Berry was an unlikely idol for a burgeoning teen subculture that he sang about at the dawn of the rock era.

He was 30, married and the father of two when he made his first recording, “Maybellene” in 1955. The song — a story of a man in a Ford V8 chasing his unfaithful girlfriend in a Cadillac Coupe de Ville — charted No. 1 on Billboard’s rhythm-and-blues chart and No. 5 on the pop music charts.

It was soon followed by “Rock and Roll Music” (“it’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it”) and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” whose astute reference to the teen-oriented TV show “American Bandstand” (“Well, they’ll be rockin’ on Bandstand, Philadelphia, P.A.”) helped him connect to adolescent record-buyers.

With his lithe, athletic body, high cheekbones and perfectly pomaded hair, Mr. Berry personified the dangerous appeal of rock. He’d grin salaciously and telegraph the lyrics with a wide-eyed, almost childlike exuberance and then shoot across the stage, unleashing a staccato burst of bright, blaring guitar notes.

When he went into his signature “duck walk,” his legs seemed to be made of rubber, and his whole body moved with clocklike precision — the visual statement of his music’s kinetic energy. His charisma was the gold standard for all the rock-and-roll extroverts who followed.

He once told The Washington Post that he initiated the duck walk at the Brooklyn Paramount theater in 1956, based on a pose he sometimes struck as a child. “I had nothing else to do during the instrumental part of the song,” he said. “I did it, and here comes the applause. Well, I knew to coin anything that was that entertaining, so I kept it up.”

 

Perhaps the most performed of his songs — indeed, one of the most performed of all rock songs — was Johnny B Goode – 1957. Its storyline embodied Mr. Berry’s own experience as a black man born into segregation who lived to see “his name in lights:”

Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans

Way back up in the woods among the evergreens

There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood

Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode

Who never ever learned to read or write so well

But he could play the guitar just like a ringin’ a bell


 

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