By Frederick H. Lowe
Chuck Berry, who died Saturday, was held in such high esteem as the father of rock n roll that rock royalty often played backup in his bands.
At Berry’s 60th birthday celebration in St. Louis, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, huge stars in their own right, backed Berry as he sang and duck walked across the stage while the audience danced in the aisles or in their seats.
The late John Lennon, co-founder of the Beatles, who sang from time to time with Berry, paid him the ultimate tribute when he said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”
The 90 year-old Berry died Saturday at his home in St. Charles, Mo.
“We are deeply saddened to announce that Chuck Berry, beloved father, grandfather and great-grandfather, passed away at his home today (Saturday) at the age of 90. Though his health had deteriorated recently, he spent his last days at home surrounded by the love of his family and friends,” according to his website.
On October 18th, his 90th birthday was supposed to be a celebration. He said he would release in 2017 his first album in 38 years. The album consists of new songs he had written and produced. He planned to dedicate the album to Thelmetta, his wife of 68 years. The release date for the new album, simply titled “Chuck,” has not yet been announced.
A signature guitarist and a prolific songwriter, Berry wrote songs about fast cars, women and the gifted, like the subject of one of his greatest hits, “Johnnie B. Goode.” The song’s lyrics said Johnnie B. Goode never learned to read or write so well, but he played the guitar like “ringing a bell.” In the song “Nadine,” she drove a coffee-colored Cadillac.
During Berry’s long career, he was imprisoned twice for income tax evasion and a conviction for violating the Mann Act, which involved taking a 14-year-old girl across state lines for illicit purposes. The Mann Act also was used against heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson in 1912 and architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1926. The charges were dropped against Wright but Johnson was convicted.
Charles Edward Anderson “Chuck” Berry was born October 18, 1926, in St. Louis. His parents were grandchildren of slaves.
Martha Berry, his mother, was one of the few black women of her generation to gain a college education. His mother was a school principal, and his father, Henry Berry, was a contractor as well as a deacon at the Antioch Baptist Church. Chuck Berry was the fourth of six children born to the couple.
He attended Sumner High School, a private institution that was the first all-black high school west of the Mississippi. For the school’s annual talent show, Berry sang Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ the Blues” while accompanied by a friend on the guitar. Although the school administration bristled at what they viewed as the song’s vulgar content, the performance was an enormous hit with the student body and sparked Berry’s interest in learning the guitar himself, according to his biography.