Chuck Berry, who duck-walked his way into the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll pioneers as one of its most influential guitarists and lyricists, creating raucous anthems that defined the genre’s sound and heartbeat, died on Saturday at his Missouri home. He was 90.
Police in St. Charles County, outside St. Louis, said they were called to Berry’s home by a caretaker and found him unresponsive. Efforts to revive him failed and he was pronounced dead at 1:26 p.m. local time.
Considered one of the founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll, Charles Edward Anderson Berry was present at its infancy in the 1950s and emerged as its first star guitarist and songwriter – a nearly 30-year-old black performer whose style electrified young white audiences and was emulated by white performers who came to dominate American popular music.
Although Elvis Presley was called the king of rock ‘n’ roll, that crown would have fit just as well on Berry’s own carefully sculpted pompadour.
Berry hits such as “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Maybellene” and “Memphis” melded elements of blues, rockabilly and jazz into some of the most timeless pop songs of the 20th century.
He was a monumental influence on just about any kid who picked up a guitar with rock star aspirations – Keith Richards, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen among them.
Bob Dylan called Berry “the Shakespeare of rock ‘n’ roll,” and he was one of the first popular acts to write as well as perform his own songs. They focused on youth, romance, cars and good times, with lyrics that were complex, humorous and sometimes a little raunchy.
Both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, as well as the Beach Boys and scores of other acts – even Elvis – covered Berry’s songs.
“If you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name,” Lennon once said, “you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.”
Paying tribute to Berry on Twitter on Saturday, Springsteen called him “rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.” Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger tweeted: “Chuck you were amazing & your music is engraved inside us forever.”
When Richards inducted Berry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, he said: “It’s very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry because I’ve lifted every lick he ever played. This is the gentleman who started it all.”