Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll: Chuck Berry (1926-2017)

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Top image: Chuck Berry helped define the rebellious spirit of rock and roll in the 1950's. He wrote many hit songs, including “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.”
Credit: © UPI/Bettmann

Over the weekend, rock fans around the world mourned the loss of American music legend Chuck Berry, who died Saturday, March 18, at his home near St. Louis, Missouri. He was 90 years old.

Berry was one of the earliest and most important writers and performers of rock music. He helped define the rebellious spirit of rock and roll in the 1950's. His songs, aimed at teenagers, combined lively lyrics with a squawking guitar and pounding rhythm. Such songs as “Maybellene,” “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)” (also known as “School Days”), and “Sweet Little Sixteen” dealt with themes that included cars, young love, and the frustrations of adolescence. Berry often said that his goal was to bridge the gap between races by focusing his songs on topics important to young people regardless of their race. At the time of his death, Berry was recording a new album to be released later in 2017.

Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born on Oct. 18, 1926, in St. Louis, and started playing the guitar during his teens. His first hit record was “Maybellene.” Berry’s other hits included “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Memphis, Tennessee.” In 1961, Berry was convicted under the Mann Act of transporting an under-age girl across state lines for immoral purposes. He served 20 months in prison. The conviction damaged his career, and his popularity declined until 1972, when “My Ding-a-Ling” became one of his biggest hits.

Many critics believe that Berry’s lyrics about the social significance of rock music have made him an important folk poet. Indeed, American songwriter and singer Bob Dylan, who won the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature, once called Berry “the Shakespeare of rock ‘n’ roll.” Berry’s song “Rock and Roll Music” is a stirring tribute to that popular music form. Berry’s style has influenced many rock performers, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

After Berry’s death was announced, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, Berry’s greatest protegé, tweeted “One of my big lights has gone out.” Former President Barack Obama recognized Berry’s musical contributions with a commemorative tweet: “Chuck Berry rolled over everyone who came before him—and turned up everyone who came after. We’ll miss you, Chuck. Be good.”

In 1977, Berry gained a measure of cosmic immortality when “Johnny B. Goode” was included on one of the “Golden Records” launched into outer space aboard the Voyager spacecraft. The recordings contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended as messages to any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or for future humans who may find them.

Berry was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Chuck Berry: The Autobiography was published in 1987.

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