Charles Edward Anderson Berry Sr., better known as Chuck Berry, was born into a middle-class family in St. Louis. Berry started performing music as a teenager after learning the basics of guitar from a neighbor.
“If you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry,’” John Lennon famously said.
Many of Berry’s hit songs, like “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” were about cars, girls and wild dance parties. Berry became so popular, writes Sara Boboltz, that “he toured the country with only a guitar, trusting he’d be able to find musicians in each city he played who could serve as his back-up.”
But his fame, particularly among white teenagers, and especially among white teenage girls, also brought trouble, according to a profile in Esquire. A black man with such status and fame did not sit well with some, particularly in the South, and Berry often had to duck into police stations after his performances to avoid protestors.
Berry himself was arrested in 1959 and charged with transporting a teenage girl across state lines for “immoral purposes,” although his first conviction was overturned because of racist remarks by the judge. He was releases in 1964, after serving 20 months in jail.
The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and the Beatles’ Ringo Starr all paid tribute to Berry following his death Saturday.
Filmmaker Taylor Hackford, who directed Chuck Berry‘s classic 1987 documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, had this to say about the legendary musician and performer:
“He was the most important figure in rock ‘n’ roll. Every rock ‘n’ roll guy starts by playing Chuck Berry songs,” Hackford wrote in The Hollywood Reporter.
“Chuck Berry defined rock ‘n roll guitar, he was a fantastic performer, but more importantly, he was the first great rock ‘n roll songwriter,” Hackford pointed out. “All of them — the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Prince — they’ve all said they wouldn’t be there without Chuck Berry. And he did it over and over again.”
“While Elvis Presley was rock’s first pop star and teenage heartthrob,” Jon Pareles notes in the The New York Times, “Mr. Berry was its master theorist and conceptual genius, the songwriter who understood what the kids wanted before they knew themselves.”
Berry never won a Grammy Award in his prime but he received a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy in 1984. He was among the first musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.