Passings: Chuck Berry (1926 - 2017)

by VVN Music

Chuck Berry, one of the most important artists in the development of Rock and Roll, died on Saturday from a yet unannounced cause. He was 90.

The St. Charles, MO police have said that they responded to a call on Buckner Road in St. Louis around 12:40 PM where they found an unresponsive man. They attempted to revive him but he was declared dead at 1:26 PM. The police later confirmed that the man was Berry.

Berry was born in St. Louis in 1926 and grew up in the neighborhood known as The Ville. He became involved in music early and gave his first performance at the age of 14 but, three years later, while still in high school, he was arrested for armed robbery, stealing a car.

While committed to a reformatory in Jefferson City, MO, Berry formed a singing group which was good enough that they were allowed furloughs from the institution to perform in public. Chuck was released on his 21st birthday.

Chuck returned to St. Louis where he married, had his first child, worked in factories and, eventually, became a beautician. By the early 50's, he was performing music again and, in 1953, became a member of the Johnnie Johnson trio.

In 1955, Berry went to Chicago where he met Muddy Waters who put him in contact with Leonard Chess of Chess Records. He signed with the label and, on May 21, 1955, recorded his own version of the country song Ida Red, renamed Maybellene. The single became a huge hit, ushering in the Rock sound in 1955 along with Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock. Maybellene went to number 1 on the R&B and 5 on the Pop charts and began a long run of hits for Chuck through the 50's.
  • Wee Wee Hours (1955 / #10 R&B)
  • Thirty Days (To Come Back Home) (1955 / #2 R&B)
  • No Money Down (1955 / #8 R&B)
  • Roll Over Beethoven (1956 / #29 Pop / #2 R&B)
  • Too Much Monkey Business (1956 / #4 R&B)
  • School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell) (1957 / #3 Pop / #1 R&B)
  • Rock and Roll Music (1957 / #8 Pop / #6 R&B)
  • Sweet Little Sixteen (1958 / #2 Pop / #1 R&B)
  • Johnny B. Goode (1958 / #8 Pop / #1 R&B)
  • Carol (1958 / #18 Pop / #9 R&B)
  • Almost Grown (1959 / #32 Pop / #3 R&B)
With record sales, touring and appearances in film, Berry was riding high by the end of the 50's and opened his first nightclub in St. Louis, Berry's Club Bandstand along with investing in real estate but, in December of 1959, he was arrested for allegedly having relations with a 14-year-old waitress and was eventually sentenced to three years in jail. His career nosedived and, despite continuing to record during the trials, his records were no longer charting well in the U.S.

After 1-1/2 years in prison, Berry was released and started recording new material but it was the British Invasion bands recording his songs along with the Beach Boys using his guitar licks on their songs that brought him back into the national consciousness. In early 1964, he finally returned to the charts with Nadine (1964 / #23), No Particular Place to Go (1964 / #10) and You Never Can Tell (1964 / #14); but the run was short lived and he spent the balance of the 60's releasing a number of well received albums that no longer produced hits. 

In 1970, Chuck re-signed with Chess Records after a number of years with Mercury and, in mid-1972, had the biggest hit of his career when the novelty song My Ding-a-Ling went to number 1 on the Hot 100 (it only made 42 on the R&B chart). Later that year, the album The London Chuck Berry Sessions, which included an extended version of My Ding-a-Ling, went to number 8, his only non-compilation album to make the top 100.

For much of the next two decades, Berry became a touring machine and, in 1986, for his 60th birthday, a special concert was held that was filmed by Taylor Hackford for the film Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll

While he continued to occasionally tour from 1990 on, he also spent time working on his businesses and found himself in the middle of a number of legal situations. In 1990, he was sued by a number of women who claimed he had installed video cameras in the ladies room of his club with a settlement estimated to have cost him $1.2 million. A later raid on his house found video tapes from the camera and marijuana which led to a six-month suspended sentence and two years of probation.

Berry's last album, Rock It, was released in 1979; however, on October 16, 2016, his 90th birthday, he announced that he had recorded a new album, Chuck, that would be out sometime in 2017. At this point, there has been no firm release information released. 

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