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

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We begin this hour with the death of a legend. The man known as the father of rock and roll died on Saturday. Chuck Berry is credited as the inventor of America's cultural soundtrack. He was found in his home in Missouri. He was 90 years old. NPR's Allison Keyes has this remembrance.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: If extraterrestrials ever come across the Voyager space probe launched in 1977 as a postcard of Earth's civilization, one of the things they'll hear is this.


KEYES: Chuck Berry's classic "Johnny B. Goode" was recorded in 1957 and is possibly a bit of rock and roll song of all time.


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...

KEYES: Berry's music is so enmeshed in America's soundtrack that NASA decided that it must be included in a package containing an assortment of all things that define this planet.

ANDY MACKAY: The amazing thing about "Johnny B. Goode" to me is that it sounds like a folk song.

KEYES: In 2008, producer Andy Mackay produced a four-CD boxed set of Chuck Berry's music.

MACKAY: Sounds like a song that came out of the generations - just honed over generations, not written by an individual. And yet it is written by an individual.

KEYES: Mackay believes Berry's ability to meld country, blues and R&B created the blueprint for what became rock and roll.

MACKAY: Essentially, he made map. Buddy Holly maybe made the map for a band. Chuck Berry made the - he created the format, though, for rock and roll from the lyric content to the guitar riffs to the rhythms.


BERRY: (Singing) All the cats want to dance with sweet little 16.

MACKAY: He was the architect. That's the term that some people use.


BERRY: (Singing) Little 16 - she's got the grown-up blues, tight dresses and lipstick.

KEYES: Charles Edward Berry grew up in St. Louis, and his career epitomized the bad boy image that rock and roll artists have tried to cop ever since. But Berry was the real thing. He spent time in reform school for robbery at 18. He went to prison for income tax evasion, as well as for transporting a minor across state lines for, quote, "immoral purposes." But it is his music that set America's pulse racing.

The influences that shaped Berry's musical style also illustrate the dichotomy of the man. He emulated the smooth vocals of his idol Nat King Cole and admired the gritty blues of another idol, Muddy Waters. Berry told NPR in 2000 that he met Waters after catching the blues man's show in 1955 - Chicago.


BERRY: 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 the record company? So he said, why don't you go see Leonard Chess over on 47th?

KEYES: Chess liked the song on Berry's audition tape that was similar to an old country tune called "Ida Red," but had Berry rework it because he felt the name was too rural-sounding. His late pianist, Johnnie Johnson, drove to Chicago with Berry and told NPR in a 1999 interview what happened next.


JOHNNIE JOHNSON: That was a problem. So nobody could think of a name, so we looked up under the window seal and there was a mascara box on there with Maybelline written on it. And Leonard Chess said, why don't we name that darn thing "Maybellene"?

KEYES: Berry heard the song on the radio when it was released in August 1955.


BERRY: Passing by a tailor shop that I got my high school graduation coat made at, and I got - passed by the shop until the song played out, you know. I didn't want anybody to see me listening, you know, to it, but it was "Maybellene" I was listening to. And when it played out, you know, that was my last walk past the door of the place. And I flew home - you know, 20 blocks from home - and told everybody. I heard it. I heard it. I heard it.

KEYES: Berry continued to perform almost to the end at a St. Louis club called Blueberry Hill. Owner Joe Edwards says what's striking about Berry's music is the way the words stayed close to the beat, but still sounded like real speech.

JOE EDWARDS: What he did with the English language and how he worked the words and the detail that he put into the songs - I mean, if you listen to the verses in a Chuck Berry song, they keep changing, and they keep telling the story.

KEYES: "Maybellene" went to number five on the Billboard chart in 1955, making Berry the rare black artist back then who successfully crossed over to the mostly white pop charts. Berry has said he deliberately made his diction and his words harder and wider. Pianist Johnnie Johnson recalled that this caused consternation on some road trips.


JOHNSON: When we would walk out on the stage, it'd be a lot of ohs (ph) and ahs (ph) and whatever because he's a black man playing hillbilly music.

KEYES: Berry continued with a string of hits, including "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," "Roll Over, Beethoven" and "Rock And Roll Music," but he never bought into the idea that he himself invented the genre.


BERRY: If you did start something, how can you say that anybody else had anything to do with it. If you started it, you know, you're the - you're the - is that why they say the father of rock? Boy, they have no idea how wrong they are (laughter).

KEYES: In 1986, Berry led the first class to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.


BERRY: (Singing) Why can't you be true? Oh, Maybellene, why can't you be true? You done started doing the things you used to do. As I was motivating over...





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