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A Father Of Rock 'N' Roll, Chuck Berry Dies At 90

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A Father Of Rock 'N' Roll, Chuck Berry Dies At 90

Remembrances

A Father Of Rock 'N' Roll, Chuck Berry Dies At 90

A Father Of Rock 'N' Roll, Chuck Berry Dies At 90

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Legendary musician Chuck Berry helped defined early rock 'n' roll has died. He was 90. NPR guest host Ray Suarez speaks with Rolling Stone music critic Peter Guralnick about his life and influence.

RAY SUAREZ, BYLINE: I'm Ray Suarez. We're interrupting the broadcast of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED with Michel Martin who's been reporting from Austin, Texas, with breaking news. One of the fathers of rock 'n' roll died today. Chuck Berry died at his home in Missouri earlier today after first responders were unable to revive him. He was 90 years old. He was inarguably one of the most influential early rock musicians.

To find out more about Chuck Berry's remarkable life and career, we're joined now by Peter Guralnick, the music journalist and author who's written extensively on early rock 'n' roll. Peter, tell me about Chuck Berry and for people, I guess, under 50 who aren't that familiar with his music, why such a big mark on the development of rock 'n' roll?

PETER GURALNICK: I mean, he's a person of such inarguable brilliance. He's an American original in the sense that very few of his peers are because he wrote all of his songs. He sang them. He played them. But I should point out that he would argue with that whole concept of originality because Chuck Berry's thesis always was that you build on the past.

He would cite people like T-Bone Walker. He would cite Louis Jordan and Louis Jordan's guitarist Carl Hogan as some of the sources of his inspiration.

SUAREZ: I think if you prompted people, even younger people with "Roll Over Beethoven," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Nadine," "Maybellene" - they'd say, oh, yeah, I know Chuck Berry and certainly anybody who's seen "Back To The Future." Let's take a listen to this classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHNNY B. GOODE")

CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans, way back up in the woods among the evergreens there stood a log cabin made of earth and wood, where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode who never, ever learned to read or write so well, but he could play a guitar just like ringing a bell. Go, go...

SUAREZ: Of course that's scorching guitar in Johnny B. Goode. For now, it seems tremendously familiar. But in the 1950s, it must have sounded really revolutionary and fresh.

GURALNICK: Well, I think it did. It did sound revolutionary and fresh, and yes, he had a sense of moving the song along. But you take a song like "Johnny B. Goode" and what he's created there is a fable. And it's a fable with which anyone - everyone can identify to a certain extent. And yet, it really has no bearing on the author's personal life.

Other songs like "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" are fables of the kind of segregated experience that Chuck Berry had growing up and living in contemporary America and in which the "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" goes free because the judge's wife says let that man go free.

SUAREZ: We're talking about a guy who is a live act over 100 nights a year well into his 70s who was still playing concerts in his 80s. What was he like in person?

GURALNICK: He was better in his 50s.

(LAUGHTER)

GURALNICK: I mean, he - Chuck Berry was a very moody guy. If anybody really wants to learn more about him, read his autobiography which he wrote every word of and which is as contentious and cantankerous as Chuck was himself. And he could be the most charming person in the world in performance or he could be someone who definitely did not endear himself to an audience by the attitude that he took towards them.

There was really no predicting what it was that would set him off. And he's somebody who set himself outside of society both by choice and by temperament.

SUAREZ: That's Peter Guralnick, a music journalist and author who's written extensively on rock 'n' roll's early years and profiled Chuck Berry for Rolling Stone. Peter, thanks a lot.

GURALNICK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHNNY B. GOODE")

BERRY: (Singing) Go. Johnny B. Goode.

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Chuck Berry, Legend Of Rock 'N' Roll, Dies At 90

Chuck Berry, Legend Of Rock 'N' Roll, Dies At 90

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Chuck Berry in 1958, posing with his Gibson hollow-body electric guitar. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images hide caption

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Chuck Berry in 1958, posing with his Gibson hollow-body electric guitar.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Legendary musician Chuck Berry, who was central to the development of rock 'n' roll beginning in the '50s with indelible hits like "Roll Over Beethoven," "Rock and Roll Music" and "Johnny B. Goode," died today in St. Charles County, Mo. He was 90 years old. His death was confirmed by the St. Charles County, Mo., police department.

Charles Edward Berry grew up in Saint Louis, Mo., as the fourth of six children, developing a career that epitomized a bad-boy image, which musicians have tried to copy ever since. Berry was the real thing. He spent time in reform school for robbery at 18 (with a nonfunctional pistol, he claimed), went to prison for income tax evasion and transported a minor across state lines for quote "immoral purposes."

Initially beginning his career as a beautician with a lifelong interest in music (he first performed in high school), Berry began to slowly ease towards the St. Louis nightlife scene in the early '50s as a member of the Johnnie Johnson trio. As a solo musician, he emulated the smooth vocals of his idol Nat King Cole and admired the gritty blues of another idol, Muddy Waters.

Berry performing "Johnny B. Goode" in 1958.

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"And I listened to him for his entire set," Mr. Berry recalled to NPR in 2000 of seeing Muddy Waters in Chicago. "When he was over, I went up to him, I asked him for his autograph and told him that I played guitar. 'How do you get in touch with a record company?' He said, 'Why don't you go see Leonard Chess over on 47th?' "

Chuck Berry in concert in 1974. Martyn Goddard/Corbis via Getty Images hide caption

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Martyn Goddard/Corbis via Getty Images

So early Monday morning, Berry made his way to Chess Records and positioned himself in a store across the street. When Leonard Chess arrived, Berry ran over and made his pitch. Chess was impressed by the young man's self-confidence and told him to come back with a tape of his own material. Berry returned the following week, bringing with him the other members of the trio, pianist Johnnie Johnson and drummer Eddie Hardy, and four new songs.

Searching for a name for his first hit on Chess Records, "Maybellene," pianist Johnnie Johnson told NPR that "we looked up on the windowsill, and there was a mascara box up there with 'Maybelline' written on it. And Leonard Chess said, 'Why don't we name the damn thing "Maybellene"?'" The record was the first by a black artist to outsell covers of it by white musicians (and led to a three-decade battle over its credits). Berry's first — and only — chart-topping hit came in 1972, with the louche novelty single "My Ding-A-Ling."

Through the late '50s and '60s Berry defined the contours of rock 'n' roll and, along with peers like Little Richard and James Brown, the full-throttle energy on stage that this still-developing high-tempo, electrified style of blues required. His work influenced nearly every popular musician that came after.

A recording of "Johnny B. Goode" was included on the interstellar Voyager spacecrafts' famed "Golden Record" — it left our solar system in 2013.

"Writing a song can be a peculiar task," he wrote in Chuck Berry: The Autobiography. "The kind of music I like then, thereafter, right now and forever, is the kind I heard when I was a teenager. So the guitar styles of Carl Hogan, T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian and Elmore James, not to leave out many of my peers who I've heard on the road, must be the total of what is called Chuck Berry's style."

As John Lennon once put it, "If you tried to give rock 'n' roll another name, you might have called it Chuck Berry."

Six years ago Berry's health began to decline, though he maintained his signature defiance even then, refusing an ambulance and leaving the theater on his own after collapsing onstage.

Berry announced a record last October at the age of 90 following a 38-year hiatus. "This record is dedicated to my beloved Toddy," said Berry at this time of its announcement in reference to, Themetta, his wife of 68 years. "My darlin' I'm growing old! I've worked on this record for a long time. Now I can hang up my shoes!"