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Hail and farewell: Rock legend Chuck Berry dies at 90

Hail and farewell: Rock legend Chuck Berry dies at 90

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Chuck Berry, regarded as one of the most influential figures in American popular music, died Saturday at age 90.

Police responded to a medical emergency at Berry's home near Wentzville around 12:40 p.m. Saturday. He was unresponsive and died at 1:26 p.m. after failed attempts to revive him, according to the St. Charles County Police Department.

Among rock ’n’ roll legends, the singer, songwriter and guitarist behind hits from “Maybellene” to “My Ding-a-Ling” was a duck-walking contradiction.

He was the middle-age black pioneer of a genre that became associated with white teenagers. He was a teetotaler and a thrifty saver. He was a haphazard performer who often traveled to gigs alone and relied on local musicians to perform his songs without rehearsal or even a greeting. He was an intensely private man who did some of his most important songwriting in prison.

And ultimately, he was a survivor.

No choirboy

Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born on Oct. 18, 1926, in his family’s home at 2520 Goode Avenue in the Ville neighborhood of north St. Louis. His father, Henry, did home repairs and was a lay preacher at Antioch Baptist Church. His mother, Martha, sang in the church choir.

Chuck, the fourth of six children, was no choirboy. In the summer of 1944, after graduating from Sumner High School, he and two friends hopped into his Oldsmobile for a trip to California and robbed several stores in western Missouri to pay for car repairs. When the Olds broke down near Columbia, the trio was busted on robbery and weapons charges, and Berry spent three years in the Algoa reformatory in Jefferson City. It was first of three extended jail terms he would serve in his life.

At Algoa, with the encouragement of a nun, Berry developed his interest in singing. Released on his 21st birthday, he went to work for his father rehabbing houses in the suburbs. At 22, he married Themetta “Toddy” Suggs, whom he met at a May Day picnic in Tandy Park, and enrolled in the Poro School of Beauty Culture to study cosmetology.

In 1950, the couple moved to a home at 3137 Whittier and welcomed daughter Darlin Ingrid, the first of their four children.

While working as a caretaker at radio station WEW, Berry bought his first electric guitar, for $30. He learned to play in the soloing style of blues guitarist T-Bone Walker and with the fluidity of jazz guitarist Charlie Christian.

Berry’s initial paid gigs as a musician were in bars catering to a white clientele, where he played the kind of country-western and pop songs he enjoyed on radio station KMOX. Berry carefully enunciated the lyrics and developed a comic persona like one of his favorite singers, jive band leader Louis Jordan.

The big call

On New Year’s Eve 1952, Berry received arguably the most important phone call in the history of rock music. Johnnie Johnson, a rhythm-and-blues pianist whose trio was performing at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis, asked Berry to fill in for a missing member. The reconstituted Johnnie Johnson Trio, which also included drummer Ebby Hardy, was a hit at the club, where their mix of hillbilly and blues music attracted both white and black patrons for the next two years.

In May 1955, Berry traveled to Chicago to hear blues stalwart Muddy Waters. After the show, Berry asked Waters if any local record labels were looking for new artists. Waters directed him to Leonard Chess at the R&B-oriented Chess records. Chess listened to a demo tape of a song that Berry called “Ida May,” based on the country-swing standard “Ida Red,” which had been popularized by Bob Wills. Chess liked the new sound and drew up a contract for the St. Louis threesome, which changed its name to the Chuck Berry Combo with the easygoing Johnson’s consent.

In the Chess studio, the band required 36 takes to satisfactorily record the song that had been retitled “Maybellene.” (Berry would later claim the title was taken from a cartoon cow; Johnson said it was taken from an eyeliner brand that Berry employed in cosmetology class.)

The song, about a back-roads race between a Cadillac and a Ford, went to No. 5 on the pop charts and No. 1 on R&B (and was soon performed on the “Louisiana Hayride” radio show by a Memphis newcomer named Elvis Presley). “Maybellene” established a template for subsequent Berry hits such as “School Days,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and his signature “Johnny B. Goode”: cleverly rhymed story songs about escaping from drudgery with fast cars and fast music.

At age 30, a dozen years after graduating from high school, Chuck Berry became the voice of something called the American teenager, a newly anointed demographic that had money to drop into jukeboxes and an openness to racial integration.

Berry soon was featured in three music-revue movies starring Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed, who was instrumental in popularizing Berry with white audiences.

But many authority figures felt threatened by this “brown-eyed handsome man.”

The extensive bus tours Berry shared with greats such as Buddy Holly, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis took him through the South, where both the artists and the audiences were kept segregated. In puritan Boston, a Berry performance ended in a race riot.

Berry's Club Bandstand

Berry, notoriously obsessed with money, invested much of his considerable income in real estate. In 1957, he bought 30 acres in Wentzville for an integrated resort he dubbed Berry Park, complete with a guitar-shaped swimming pool.

A year later, he opened a nightclub at 813 North Grand called Berry’s Club Bandstand, named after the “American Bandstand” TV show on which he was a frequent guest. The nightclub and its owner were the subject of continual police scrutiny, at a time when Berry had eclipsed Stan Musial as the most famous man in St. Louis.

When Berry’s Cadillac broke down near St. Charles with a pistol under the driver’s seat and a young white woman from Kansas in the passenger seat, he was arrested on a weapons charge, and police tried in vain to get the teenager to implicate Berry on a morals rap.

The concealed-weapons charge was reduced, but soon Berry was arrested again. An American-Indian teenager he had met near El Paso, Texas, and hired to work at Club Bandstand was suspected of being a prostitute. Berry was charged with violating the Mann Act, the law that made it illegal to transport a minor across state lines for immoral purposes.

After a trial marred by racist innuendo and an appeal that acknowledged judicial misconduct, his conviction was upheld and Berry was sentenced to prison in April 1962.

Berry used his 18 months at the federal penitentiary in Springfield, Mo., to study business administration and write the lyrics to some of his most famous songs, including “Nadine” and the aptly titled “No Particular Place to Go.”

'You came a long way'

After he was released from prison, Berry went on his first tour of England, where he had become even more popular and influential than in America. British academics analyzed his cultural impact, fans declared him the true King of Rock ’n’ Roll and bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones hailed him as their inspiration.

As he sang in a song he recorded in London, “You Came a Long Way from St. Louis.”

In 1966, a big payday lured Berry to the Mercury label, for whom he re-recorded some of his old hits at Technisonic Studios in Clayton. He declined an invitation to play the historic Monterey Pop Festival because promoters wouldn’t meet his asking price, but in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s he played several superstar fests, including gigs with the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band.

Although Berry didn’t drink, and originally conceived “Johnny B. Goode” as a warning to Johnnie Johnson about the evils of alcohol, he started including marijuana references in some of his songs and accepted the occasional joint from his new hippie fans. Berry hoped that his property near Wentzville would flourish as an outdoor concert venue, but in the early ’70s, a drowning, a shooting and drug busts put an end to Berry Park as a public facility.

Yet 1972 marked a high point in Berry’s career. Back on the Chess label, he released a naughty novelty tune called “My Ding-a-Ling” that he had recorded during a rare encore at Coventry University in England. It became the only No. 1 pop hit of his career.

That year, Berry performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and a legendary concert at Wembley Stadium in London.

In 1977, his “Johnny B. Goode” was included on a golden phonograph record of Earth sounds aboard the two Voyager spacecraft that were sent into outer space.

Also in 1977, Berry played himself in the Alan Freed biopic “American Hot Wax,” which includes an ironic scene where Berry offers to play a gig for free. But in 1979, his career-long insistence on being paid in cash upfront cost him his freedom. He was convicted for under-reporting his income to the IRS and served four months in the Lompoc Prison Camp in California.

In jail, Berry started his autobiography, in which he rectified the chronic under-reporting of his marital infidelities and age.

In 1986, Berry was an inaugural inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in the same class as Presley.

In October of that year, Berry’s 60th birthday was marked by a tribute concert at the Fox Theater in St. Louis. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards was the musical director for the all-star event, which entailed weeks of rehearsal at Berry Park. As chronicled in Taylor Hackford’s documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll!” the temperamental Berry continually clashed with his most famous pupil over tunings and tempos. What wasn’t revealed in the movie was that Bob Dylan withdrew from the project, other big names were no-shows and many of the 9,000 St. Louisans who paid for the privilege of being extras in the concert scenes were disappointed with the sloppy performance.

Legal troubles

Berry’s reputation took another hit in 1989. A former employee of Berry’s Southern Air restaurant in Wentzville sued the musician, claiming he had secretly installed videotape cameras in the women’s restroom. Although a subsequent drug raid on his Berry Park residence did not turn up the cache of cocaine alleged by the ex-employee’s husband, Berry eventually acknowledged the videotaping and paid restitution to 74 women.

The most far-reaching legal action against Berry was the lawsuit filed against him in 2000 by pianist Johnson. He claimed that he wrote the music for most of Berry’s biggest hits and had been ignorant of the copyright law that entitled him to royalties. Although musicians including Richards had long agreed with Johnson’s contention, the judge ruled that the pianist had waited too long to file his claim.

Johnson and Berry expressed no public animosity toward each other and continued performing together on occasion. In 2001, Berry successfully lobbied to have Johnson inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Johnson died in 2005.

Richard Schwartz, a St. Louis attorney who formerly represented Berry and had remained friends with him, said Berry had owned homes in Ladue and Richmond Heights as well as his residence southwest of Wentzville on an old farm known as Berry Park. That's where he spent most of his time in recent years, Schwartz said.

"This comes pretty much as a surprise to most of his close friends," Schwartz said. "We knew we wouldn't have him forever but we would have liked to have him longer."

'My throat is worn'

Starting in 1996, Berry began playing monthly gigs in the relatively intimate Duck Room at Blueberry Hill in University City. His children Ingrid and Charles Jr. often performed in his band.

Berry was honored in Oct. 2012 by the American Music Masters’ weeklong “Roll Over Beethoven: The Life and Music of Chuck Berry” presented by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. There, Berry referred to his future as a performer as “dim.”

“My singing days have passed,” he said. “My voice is gone. My throat is worn. And my lungs are going fast.”

But he added he wasn’t looking to retire, not as long as he is able to “see a little, hear a little and do but a little,” he said. “I want to perform. It’s in my genes.”

In December 2013, preparing for his 200th consecutive Duck Room show in January 2014, he told the Post-Dispatch that he's thankful for each day. "We never know when time is up. I’m thankful for performing as long as I am allowed. I didn’t know (God) was going to let me be around, but it feels like he gave me a little more time. I’ll keep going for as long as the big man upstairs allows, and I’m looking forward to 200 more.”

At that that show, Berry greeted his fans with “Good evening. Thanksgiving has come and gone. Christmas has come and gone. It’s time for us to kick a little butt tonight.” That night, Berry proved to be light on lyrics and occasional on guitar, though the sold-out crowd didn’t seem to mind.

He played the Duck Room a couple of times after that. The shows quietly stopped, and Berry settled into a fanfare-free retirement.

Joe Edwards, who owns Blueberry Hill, the Pageant and other Delmar Loop establishments, was a longtime friend of Berry and also acted as his publicist. 

"Even when you know it's coming, it's still difficult when it happens," he said of Berry's death. 

He called Berry "the first poet laureate of rock 'n' roll. His music was recognized by people around the world, and how he affected culture means even more. He brought white people and black together — brought the races together with his music."

On the occasion of Berry's 90th birthday on Oct. 18, Dualtone Records announced a new Berry album would be released in 2017, simply titled “Chuck.” It is to be the first Berry album since 1979’s “Rock It.”

"This record is dedicated to my beloved Todd," he said in a statement at the time, referring to his wife of 68 years, Themetta Berry. "My darlin' I'm growing old! I've worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!"

Charles Berry Jr., Berry’s son and guitarist, says the songs “cover the spectrum from hard-driving rockers to soulful, thought-provoking time capsules of a life’s work.”

Edwards says the album is finished and ready for release, but no date has been set. "I was really hoping he'd be able to hear his new music on the radio. But that didn't happen," Edwards said. He says Berry's family will decide whether there will be concerts or tribute events.

Despite his accomplishments, Berry was unsentimental about his legacy.

At the end of the movie “Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll!,” when asked how he would like to be remembered, Berry declined to sing his own praises.

“Whatever it be, I just hope it’s real and it’s a fact which will be the truth. That’s it. I just hope they’ll speak the truth, be it pro or con, bad or good.

“I was going to say black or white, but that wouldn’t be right, would it?”

Post-Dispatch reporters Kevin C. Johnson, Denise Hollinshed, Mark Schlinkmann, Leah Thorsen and the late Joe Williams contributed to this report.

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