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Legendary rocker Chuck Berry dead at 90

Chuck Berry, the rock 'n' roll founder who defined its joy and rebellion in Johnny B. Goode and

Associated Press Published: March 19, 2017 4:00 AM
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NEW YORK -- Chuck Berry, rock 'n' roll's founding guitar hero and storyteller who defined the music's joy and rebellion in such classics as "Johnny B. Goode," ''Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Roll Over Beethoven," died Saturday at his home in an unincorporated area west of St. Louis. He was 90.

Emergency responders summoned to Berry's residence by his caretaker about 12:40 p.m. found him unresponsive, police in Missouri's St. Charles County said in a statement. Attempts to revive Berry failed, and he was pronounced shortly before 1:30 p.m., police said.

A police spokeswoman, Val Joyner, told The Associated Press she had no additional details about the death of Berry, calling him "really a legend."

Berry's core repertoire was some three dozen songs, his influence incalculable, from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to virtually any group from garage band to arena act that called itself rock 'n roll. While Elvis Presley gave rock its libidinous, hip-shaking image, Berry was the auteur, setting the template for a new sound and way of life.

Berry, in his late 20s before his first major hit, crafted lyrics that spoke to the teenagers of the day and remained fresh decades later. "Sweet Little Sixteen" captured rock 'n' roll fandom, an early and innocent ode to the young girls later known as "groupies." ''School Day" told of the sing-song trials of the classroom ("American history and practical math; you're studying hard, hoping to pass...") and the liberation of rock 'n' roll once the day's final bell rang.

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"Roll Over Beethoven" was an anthem to rock's history-making power, while "Rock and Roll Music" was a guidebook for all bands that followed ("It's got a back beat, you can't lose it"). "Back in the U.S.A." was a black man's straight-faced tribute to his country at a time there was no guarantee Berry would be served at the drive-ins and corner cafes he was celebrating.

"Everything I wrote about wasn't about me, but about the people listening," he once said.

"Johnny B. Goode," the tale of a guitar-playing country boy whose mother tells him he'll be a star, was Berry's signature song, the archetypal narrative for would-be rockers and among the most ecstatic recordings in the music's history. Berry can hardly contain himself as the words hurry out ("Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans/Way back up in the woods among the evergreens") and the downpour of guitar, drums and keyboards amplifies every call of "Go, Johnny Go!"

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."

Influenced by bandleader Louis Jourdan, blues guitarist T-Bone Walker and jazz man Charlie Christian, but also hip to country music, novelty songs and the emerging teen audiences of the post-World War II era, Berry signed with Chicago's Chess Records in 1955. "Maybellene" reworked the country song "Ida Red" and rose into the top 10 of the national pop charts, a rare achievement for a black artist at that time.

Several hits followed, including "Roll Over Beethoven," ''School Day" and "Sweet Little Sixteen." Among his other songs: "Too Much Monkey Business," ''Nadine," ''No Particular Place To Go," ''Almost Grown" and the racy novelty number "My Ding-A-Ling," which topped the charts in 1972.

Tax charges came in 1979, and another three-year prison sentence, all but 120 days of which was suspended. Some former female employees later sued him for allegedly videotaping them in the bathroom of his restaurant. The cases were settled in 1994, after Berry paid $1.3 million.


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