Legendary singer, songwriter and guitarist Chuck Berry was found dead Saturday (March 18) at his home near Wentzville, Missouri, at the age of 90.
An architect of rock ’n’ roll, the St. Louis native was one of the most influential guitarists of all time and will be remembered among the most inventive lyricists of the 20th century.
Berry was in the first class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. The Recording Academy honored him with a lifetime achievement award in 1984.
As a recording artist, Berry’s hits were largely confined to the Top 40 and R&B charts, and many listeners were first exposed to his songs by cover versions in the ’60s, including the Beatles’ remakes of “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music” and the Rolling Stones update of “Come On” and “Carol.”
However, Berry’s lyrics often centered around rural themes, and one of his most successful songs, “Maybellene,” was influenced by the rhythms of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys’ “Ida Red.”
Country artists mined hits from Berry’s song catalog, notably Emmylou Harris’ “You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie)” in 1977. Country Music Hall of Fame member Marty Robbins also scored a Top 10 hit in 1955 with “Maybellene,” and other Berry-written country hits in the following three decades included Waylon Jennings’ “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” Buck Owens’ “Johnny B. Goode,” Freddy Weller’s “The Promised Land” and “Too Much Monkey Business” and Fred Knoblock’s “Memphis.”
Grand Ole Opry duo Jim & Jesse released Berry Pickin’ in the Country, a collection of bluegrass versions of Berry’s songs, George Jones and Johnny Paycheck included “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Maybellene” on 1980’s Double Trouble, an album primarily featuring covers of older rock songs.
“Brown Eyed Handsome Man” was one of the songs performed by Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley at Sun Records in Memphis during an informal jam session that became known as the “Million Dollar Quartet.” Lewis recorded a solo version of the song on his 1970 album She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye, and Cash and Perkins recorded it together for a track that surfaced on Cash’s Unearthed album in 2003.
Presley, of course, had a major hit in the ’70s with Berry’s “The Promised Land,” but one of the most enduring legends in the history of rock ’n’ roll centers around a 1958 concert in Brooklyn, New York, where disc jockey and concert promoter Alan Freed made the decision for Berry to close the show immediately after Lewis’ set.
Rather than be upstaged by Berry, Lewis set his piano on fire. Lewis confirmed the basic details of the story during a 2013 interview with WMC-TV in Memphis, noting that he had mixed Coca-Cola and gasoline in a bottle.
“I just flipped it over,” Lewis recalled. “And when I finished ’A Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On,’ I just threw a match in it.”
Singers, songwriters and musicians from throughout the world are paying tribute to Chuck Berry via social media.