The question of who exactly invented rock and roll may never ever be conclusively decided. But few did more to shape and popularize the genre than Chuck Berry, who died Saturday in Missouri, the St. Charles County police confirmed. He was 90.
“St. Charles County police responded to a medical emergency on Buckner Road at approximately 12:40 p.m. today (Saturday, March 18). Inside the home, first responders observed an unresponsive man and immediately administered lifesaving techniques. Unfortunately, the 90-year-old man could not be revived and was pronounced deceased at 1:26 p.m.” read a note on the department’s Facebook page. “The St. Charles County Police Department sadly confirms the death of Charles Edward Anderson Berry Sr., better known as legendary musician Chuck Berry.”
According to the post, “The family requests privacy during this time of bereavement.”
Berry’s onstage showmanship, guitar-playing, song arrangements, and lyrics were hugely influential on artists such as Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys. The latter group’s “Surfin’ USA” so directly copied Berry’s song “Sweet Little Sixteen” that the rock pioneer cried foul and was given a co-writing credit.
Berry scored his biggest hit in 1972 with the novelty single “My Ding-a-Ling” but it was the records he released in the ’50s with the Chicago-based Chess label for which he will be best remembered. (In the 2008 movie Cadillac Records inspired by the Chess Records story, Mos Def portrayed Berry.) These include “Maybelline,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Carol,” which would be covered by the Rolling Stones early in their career.
By the late ’70s, the hits had dried up, and in 1979 Berry was found guilty of tax evasion and sentenced to four months in jail. However, he remained a revered figure by the music icons he had inspired. When Keith Richards inducted Berry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, the Stones guitarist claimed to have “lifted every lick” that Berry ever played.
In the wake of Berry’s death, Richards was one of the many members of the music community to pay tribute to the legend. “One of my big lights has gone out!” the Stones guitarist wrote alongside a photo of him and Berry.
Richards’ band offered its remembrance as well. “The Rolling Stones are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Chuck Berry. He was a true pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll and a massive influence on us,” the group said in a joint statement. “Chuck was not only a brilliant guitarist, singer, and performer, but most importantly, he was a master craftsman as a songwriter. His songs will live forever.”
Lead singer Mick Jagger added, “I am so sad to hear of Chuck Berry’s passing. I want to thank him for all the inspirational music he gave to us. He lit up our teenage years, and blew life into our dreams of being musicians and performers. His lyrics shone above others and threw a strange light on the American dream. Chuck, you were amazing, and your music is engraved inside us forever.”
Everyone from Bob Seger and Joan Jett to Spike Lee and John Mayer weighed in following Berry’s death, as did former President Bill Clinton. “Hillary and I loved Chuck Berry for as long as we can remember,” he said. “The man was inseparable from his music — both were utterly original and distinctly American. made our feet move and our hearts more joyful. And along the way, he changed our country and the history of popular music. Chuck played at both my inaugurations and at the White House for my 25th Georgetown reunion, and he never slowed down, which is why his legend grew every time he stepped on stage. His life was a treasure and a triumph, and he’ll never be forgotten. Our hearts go out to his family and his countless friends and fans.”