Chuck Berry, who has died aged 90, was to some the greatest rock ’n roll artist of all time: he was certainly among the most influential.
All the big British bands of the 1960s, in particular The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Animals, looked to Berry for both inspiration and material. Their early hits such as “Roll over Beethoven”, “Come On” and “Memphis Tennessee” had all been written and recorded by the man from Missouri. As John Lennon once said: “If you tried to give rock ’n roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”
If his music was simple and direct, the man himself was something of an enigma. For years he travelled continuously, keeping to a financially rewarding formula. Berry would drive himself to a concert, arriving just minutes before — or long after — he was due to go on. He would demand cash up front before he appeared and was happy to play with a scratch band of unknown talent.
Performances were idiosyncratic and variable: he indulged the crowd by squatting and hopping across the stage in his celebrated duck walk, bright red Gibson guitar leading the way, and bashing through his hits, but often he would disappear after a 30 minute set with hardly a backward glance. Berry treated his talent as casually as he treated life.
But if he often exasperated his fans, they knew they were watching a rock legend and forgave him everything. With his clearly expressed lyrics aimed squarely at teenage life, and his effortless jangly guitar riffs, Berry was the enduring sound of rock ‘n roll.
Born in St Louis on October 18 1926, he spent some of his teens in prison for robbery but by the early 1950s was working as a hairdresser by day and playing guitar in clubs in the evening. In 1955 he made his break for fame, going to Chicago with a handful of songs. Blues singer Muddy Waters secured him an audition with Chess Records and, with the promotional help of Alan Freed, the leading radio disc jockey of the age, he quickly had his first hit, “Maybellene”: Freed’s reward was a joint writing credit on the song.
Over the next few years Berry wrote “Johnny B Goode”; “Sweet Little Sixteen”; “Rock ’n Roll Music” and “Reelin’ and Rockin’” as well as headlining concerts throughout the US. These were the glory years of rock and Berry was, with Elvis Presley, the joint king although, unlike Presley, he wrote his own material.
Then things fell apart. In 1959 Berry was arrested for taking a minor across state lines for immoral purposes and eventually spent two years in jail. By the time of his release, most of his best work was behind him. Yet Berry was commercially more successful than ever — the young British bands had given his early songs a new lease on life.
Popular in the UK, he built a following that was never lost. There came occasional new hits, such as “No particular place to go”, but most of his later recordings were updated versions of old releases.
Berry’s main activity was constant touring, and it was during another triumphal UK tour in 1972 that he achieved his biggest selling record. “My Ding-a-Ling” was taken from a live recording of a concert at Coventry and its mild innuendo appealed to teenagers and adults as well as committed fans.
Performing this trite piece of juvenilia must have been a chore for Berry over the next few decades but he was always happy to give the public what it wanted, however casually. Punctuated by other scrapes with the law including a sentence for tax evasion, he continued to perform well into the new millennium. To mark his 90th birthday last autumn he announced that an album called Chuck, his first in 38 years to comprise largely new material, would be launched in 2017.
Ingrid and Charles Jr, two of his four children, are to feature on a record that he dedicated to Themetta, known as Toddy, whom he married in 1948; she survives him along with their offspring.
Although his songs were usually joyous and exciting, full of teenage drive and optimism, Berry was a reserved man who treated rock music primarily as a lucrative profession. Almost by the way, he created and recorded many of the classic songs of the mid-20th century.
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