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 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 dead shortly before 1:30 p.m., police said.
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.
“Just let me hear some of that rock 'n roll music, any old way you use it. God bless Chuck Berry Chuck,” Beatles' drummer Ringo Starr tweeted, quoting some lyrics from a Berry hit.
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.
“Chuck Berry was a rock and roll original,” The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame said in a statement.
“A gifted guitar player, an amazing live performer, and a skilled songwriter whose music and lyrics captured the essence of 1950s teenage life.”
Well before the rise of Bob Dylan, Berry wedded social commentary to the beat and rush of popular music.
“He was singing good lyrics, and intelligent lyrics, in the '50s when people were singing, "Oh, baby, I love you so,'” John Lennon once observed.
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.
“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 hardly can 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!”
The song was inspired in part by Johnnie Johnson, the boogie-woogie piano master who collaborated on many Berry hits, but the story easily could have been Berry's, Presley's, or countless others'.
Commercial calculation made the song universal: Berry had meant to call Johnny a “colored boy" but changed "colored" to "country,” enabling not only radio play but musicians of any colour to imagine themselves as stars.
“Chances are you have talent," Berry later wrote of the song. ”But will the name and the light come to you?
“No! You have to 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.”
Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in St. Louis on Oct. 18, 1926. As a child, he practised a bent-leg stride that enabled him to slip under tables—a prelude to the duck walk of his adult years.
His mother, like Johnny B. Goode's, told him he would make it—and make it big.
A fan of blues, swing, and boogie woogie, Berry studied the very mechanics of music and how it was transmitted.
As a teenager, he loved to take radios apart and put them back together.
Using a Nick Manoloff guitar chord book, he learned how to play the hits of the time.
He was fascinated by chord progressions and rhythms, discovering that many songs borrowed heavily from the Gershwins' “I Got Rhythm.”
He began his musical career at age 15 when he went on stage at a high school review to do his own version of Jay McShann's “Confessin' the Blues.”
Berry would never forget the ovation he received.
“Long did the encouragement of that performance assist me in programming my songs and even their delivery while performing,” he wrote in his autobiography.
“I added and deleted according to the audiences' response to different gestures, and chose songs to build an act that would constantly stimulate my audience.”