(1926 – 2017)
John Lennon famously said, "if you tried to give Rock and Roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry." Indeed, Chuck Berry is one of the few to lay claim as a true founding father of Rock music.
Born in St. Louis, Mo., Berry started playing guitar in high school, borrowing guitar riffs and stagecraft from Blues legend T-Bone Walker. By early 1953 Berry was performing with local pianist Johnnie Johnson's trio, starting a longtime collaboration with Johnson. Although the band played mostly Blues and ballads — Berry idolized the hard driving Bluesman Muddy Waters and the elegant Pop singer Nat "King" Cole in equal measure — the most popular music among whites in the area was Country. Berry began to mix Country tunes with R&B tunes, and while it bewildered some members of his largely black audience, it would prove a winning crossover formula, drawing a growing number of white patrons.
In 1955, Berry traveled to Chicago where he met Muddy Waters, who recommended Berry to Chess Records. His first single with the label, "Maybellene" — a jumping, guitar-driven number based on the song "Ida Red" by Western Swing bandleader Bob Wills — became a million seller, climbing to No. 1 on Billboard's Rhythm and Blues charts. Berry followed with another smash, "Roll Over Beethoven." Through the end of the 1950s, he would score over a dozen chart singles, including many songs that would become texts in the Rock and Roll canon, covered by literally thousands of band: "School Days," "Rock and Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Johnny B. Goode."
Where many of his contemporaries saw their fortunes decline in the decade to follow, Chuck Berry's saw a boost when up and comers like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones openly acknowledged his influence and covered his songs. (The Beach Boys were less forthcoming: The band's "Surfing USA" so closely resembled Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" that he sued, and won.) He scored a surprise hit in 1972 with the novelty song "My Ding-a-Ling," a cover song that became his only No. 1 single — a notable irony for a man who wrote so many classics.
While it's been decades since Berry recorded any new material, he has continued to perform regularly well into his 80s. In 1986, Berry was the very first person inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.