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Rock pioneer Chuck Berry passes away at 90

Brie Coder, Courier Staff

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Anyone who is a fan of music could tell you that Chuck Berry contributed many different elements still used in music today. Known as the “Shakespeare of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Chuck Berry passed away on March 18 at his home in Wentzville, Missouri due to cardiac arrest.

Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri. He was the fourth child of six. In his teenage years, Berry was interested in playing guitar and began his music career playing blues. He had a few encounters with the law that caused for his guitar playing to be put off to the side. That did not stop him from forming a singing quartet while serving time at the Reformatory for Young Men near Jefferson City, Missouri in 1944. He and his fellow mates were allowed to leave and perform for the public. When Berry turned 21 in 1947, he was released from the Reformatory.

After being released, Berry found himself performing at local clubs in St. Louis. Fans at the time were mostly interested in R&B and country. Even though Berry knew those genres didn’t fit his style, he played what the fans wanted to hear to gain popularity. After so much practice, he learned how to incorporate blues into the R&B and country genres. He learned to play like his idol Muddy Waters (very well-known blues guitarist and known as the father of modern
blues), which landed him a golden opportunity to meet Waters, who helped begin his recording career.

After meeting with Waters, Berry was told to meet Leonard Chess, a record executive for Chess Records. Chess Records was considered the first and biggest record label for any blues musician in Chicago. Many artists, including Muddy Waters, Etta James and the Flamingos, were recording there before and during Berry’s arrival at the studio. Berry signed with Chess Records in 1955 and within that first year recorded the song “Maybellene.” The song became and overnight hit and most successful song recorded in the studio.

“Maybellene” sold over a million copies, and reached number one on the “Billboard Magazine’s” rhythm and blues chart. That next year, 1956, he recorded “Roll Over Beethoven,” a song about how blues and rock music would replace classical music. The song would then be covered a few years later in 1963 by the Beatles, and then again in 1973 by Electric Light Orchestra. From 1957 to 1959, he’d continued to make single hit songs including “School Days,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Memphis, Tennessee,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Little Queenie.”

Trouble would find Berry yet again in 1959, when he was convicted of dating a 14-year-old. After several trial cases, he only had to serve a one-and-a-half-year sentence in prison. When he was released in 1963, he continued to record music but noticed a decline in record sales due to his criminal past being spotlighted over his music career. After a few unsuccessful recordings in the 60s, Berry decided to tour and play his older content that had made him popular.

In the 1970s, Berry began touring and was looking for backup guitarists to accompany him. A very young Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller were his backup guitarists. After being on the road for a while, Berry helped Springsteen and Miller find the right music contacts to begin their careers. When the 80s came around music was changing its sound. It was the beginning of hard metal, synthesized pop music and the beginning of the hip hop movement. This did not stop Berry from touring. He played 70 to 100 solo shows within the decade. After a long stretch of touring, he decided to take a breather and step out of the music spotlight for a while.

With his recent passing, many fans can agree that if it weren’t for Berry the genre of rock would not have existed. Rock is known as the combined elements of blues, jazz, folk and country music. All of which Berry used in all of his music in the 50s. Not only his recordings, but also his showmanship and guitar abilities are still heard today in the rock genre. What makes the music community phenomenal is how one person can change the content and create something unheard of; Berry was the man to do that, along with teaching the valuable lesson that  music is not about color. Instead, it’s about how the music impacts you.

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The independent student newspaper of Western Illinois University. Serving Macomb since 1905.
Rock pioneer Chuck Berry passes away at 90