Chuck Berry died aged ninety on 18th March 2017 at his home in St. Charles County, Missouri, U.S.A where he was found non-responsive after succumbing to a cardiac arrest.
Chuck Berry's funeral was held on 9th April 2017, at The Pageant, in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.. He was remembered in rock 'n' roll style with a public viewing by family, friends, and fans in The Pageant, a music club where he often performed, with his beloved cherry-red guitar bolted to the inside lid of the coffin and with flower arrangements that included one sent by English R&B band the Rolling Stones in the shape of a guitar. Afterwards a private service was held in the club celebrating Chuck Berry's life and musical career, with the Berry family inviting 300 members of the public into the service. Gene Simmons of KISS gave an impromptu, un-advertised eulogy at the service, while Little Richard was scheduled to lead the funeral procession but did not show up due to an illness. The night before, many St. Louis area bars held a mass toast at 10 pm in Chuck Berry's honour.
Chuck Berry was born Charles Edward Anderson Berry on October 18th 1926 in St. Louis, Missourii, U.S.A. where he was the fourth child in a family of six. Chuck grew up in the north St. Louis neighborhood known as the Ville, an area where many middle-class people lived. His father, Henry William Berry, was a contractor and deacon of a nearby Baptist church; his mother, Martha Bell, was a certified public school principal. Chuck Berry's upbringing allowed him to pursue his interest in music from an early age. He gave his first public performance in 1941 while still a student at Sumner High School. He was still a student there in 1944, when he was arrested for armed robbery after robbing three shops in Kansas City, Missouri, and then stealing a car at gunpoint with some friends. Chuck Berry's account in his autobiography is that his car broke down and he flagged down a passing car and stole it at gunpoint with a nonfunctional pistol. He was convicted and sent to the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, near Jefferson City, Missouri, where he formed a singing quartet and did some boxing. The singing group became competent enough that the authorities allowed it to perform outside the detention facility. Chuck Berry was released from the reformatory on his 21st birthday in 1947.
On 28th October 1948, Chuck Berry married Themetta "Toddy" Suggs, who gave birth to Darlin Ingrid Berry on 3rd October 1950. Chuck Berry supported his family by taking various jobs in St. Louis, working briefly as a factory worker at two automobile assembly plants and as a janitor in the apartment building where he and his wife lived. Afterwards he trained as a beautician at the Poro College of Cosmetology. He was doing well enough by 1950 to buy a "small three room brick cottage with a bath" on Whittier Street, which is now listed as the Chuck Berry House on the National Register of Historic Places.
By the early 1950s, Chuck Berry was working with local bands in clubs in St. Louis as an extra source of income. He had been playing blues since his teens, and he borrowed both guitar riffs and showmanship techniques from the blues musician T-Bone Walker. He also took guitar lessons from his friend Ira Harris, which laid the foundation for his guitar style.
By early 1953 Chuck Berry was performing with Johnnie Johnson's trio, starting a long-time collaboration with the pianist. The band played mostly blues and ballads, but the most popular music among whites in the area was country. Berry wrote, "Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of our country stuff on our predominantly black audience and some of our black audience began whispering 'who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo?' After they laughed at me a few times they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed dancing to it."
Chuck Berry's calculated showmanship, along with a mix of country tunes and R&B tunes, sung in the style of Nat King Cole set to the music of Muddy Waters, brought in a wider audience, particularly affluent white people. In May 1955, Chuck Berry travelled to Chicago, where he met Muddy Waters, who suggested he contact Leonard Chess, of Chess Records. Chuck Berry thought his blues music would be of more interest to Chess, but to his surprise it was a traditional country fiddle tune, "Ida Red", as recorded by Bob Wills, that got Chess's attention. Chess had seen the rhythm and blues market shrink and was looking to move beyond it, and he thought Berry might be the artist for that purpose. In May 1955, Chuck Berry recorded an adaptation of the song "Ida Red", under the title "Maybellene", with Johnnie Johnson on the piano, Jerome Green (from Bo Diddley's band) on the maracas, Jasper Thomas on the drums and Willie Dixon on the bass. "Maybellene" sold over a million copies, reaching number one on Billboard magazine's rhythm and blues chart and number five on its Best Sellers in Stores chart for September 10, 1955. Chuck Berry said, "It came out at the right time when Afro-American music was spilling over into the mainstream pop."
At the end of June 1956, his song "Roll Over Beethoven" reached number 29 on the Billboard's Top 100 chart, and Chuck Berry toured as one of the "Top Acts of '56". He and Carl Perkins became friends. Perkins said that "I knew when I first heard Chuck that he'd been affected by country music. I respected his writing; his records were very, very great." As they toured, Perkins discovered that Chuck Berry not only liked country music but also knew about as many songs as he did. Jimmie Rodgers was one of his favorites. "Chuck knew every Blue Yodel and most of Bill Monroe's songs as well", Perkins remembered. "He told me about how he was raised very poor, very tough. He had a hard life. He was a good guy. I really liked him."
In late 1957, Chuck Berry took part in Alan Freed's "Biggest Show of Stars for 1957", touring the United States with the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and others. He was a guest on ABC's Guy Mitchell Show, singing his hit song "Rock 'n' Roll Music". The hits continued from 1957 to 1959, with Chuck Berry scoring over a dozen chart singles during this period, including the Top 10 hits "School Days", "Rock and Roll Music", "Sweet Little Sixteen", and "Johnny B. Goode". He appeared in two early rock-and-roll movies: Rock Rock Rock (1956), in which he sang "You Can't Catch Me", and Go, Johnny, Go! (1959), in which he had a speaking role as himself and performed "Johnny B. Goode", "Memphis, Tennessee", and "Little Queenie". His performance of "Sweet Little Sixteen" at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958 was captured in the motion picture Jazz on a Summer's Day.
By the end of the 1950s, Chuck Berry was a high-profile established star with several hit records and film appearances and a lucrative touring career. He had opened a racially integrated St. Louis nightclub, Berry's Club Bandstand, and invested in real estate. But in December 1959, he was arrested under the Mann Act after allegations that he had had sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old Apache waitress, Janice Escalante, whom he had transported across state lines to work as a hatcheck girl at his club. After a two-week trial in March 1960, he was convicted, fined $5,000, and sentenced to five years in prison. He appealed the decision, arguing that the judge's comments and attitude were racist and prejudiced the jury against him. The appeal was upheld, and a second trial was heard in May and June 1961, resulting in another conviction and a three-year prison sentence. After another appeal failed, Chuck Berry served one and one-half years in prison, from February 1962 to October 1963. He had continued recording and performing during the trials, but his output had slowed as his popularity declined; his final single released before he was imprisoned was "Come On"
When Chuck Berry was released from prison in 1963 his return to recording and performing was made easier because British invasion bands, notably the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, had sustained interest in his music by releasing cover versions of his songs, and other bands had reworked some of them, such as the Beach Boys' 1963 hit "Surfin' U.S.A.", which used the melody of Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen". In 1964 and 1965 Chuck Berry released eight singles, including three that were commercially successful, reaching the top 20 of the USA's Billboard 100: "No Particular Place to Go" (a humorous reworking of "School Days", concerning the introduction of seat belts in cars), "You Never Can Tell", and the rocking "Nadine". Between 1966 and 1969 Chuck Berry released five albums for Mercury Records, including his first live album, Live at Fillmore Auditorium, in which he was backed by the Steve Miller Band.
While this was not a successful period for studio work, Chuck Berry was still a top concert draw. In May 1964, he made a successful tour of the UK. He also played at large events in North America, such as the Schaefer Music Festival, in New York City's Central Park in July 1969, and the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival in October. Chuck Berry helped give life to a subculture ... Even "My Ding-a-Ling", a fourth-grade wee-wee joke that used to mortify true believers at college concerts, permitted a lot of twelve-year-olds new insight into the moribund concept of "dirty" when it hit the airwaves ...
Chuck Berry returned to Chess from 1970 to 1973. There were no hit singles from the 1970 album Back Home, but in 1972 Chess released a live recording of "My Ding-a-Ling", a novelty song which he had recorded in a different version as "My Tambourine" on his 1968 LP From St. Louie to Frisco. The track became his only number-one single. A live recording of "Reelin' and Rockin'", issued as a follow-up single in the same year, was his last Top 40 hit in both the USA and the UK. Both singles were included on the part-live, part-studio album The London Chuck Berry Sessions. Chuck Berry's second tenure with Chess ended with the 1975 album 'Chuck Berry', after which he did not make a studio record until Rock It for Atco Records in 1979.
In the 1970s Chuck Berry toured on the strength of his earlier successes. He was on the road for many years, carrying only his Gibson guitar, confident that he could hire a band that already knew his music no matter where he went. AllMusic said that in this period his "live performances became increasingly erratic, ... working with terrible backup bands and turning in sloppy, out-of-tune performances" which "tarnished his reputation with younger fans and oldtimers" alike. In March 1972 he was filmed, at the BBC Television Theatre in Shepherds Bush, for Chuck Berry in Concert, part of a 60-date tour backed by the band Rocking Horse. Among the many bandleaders performing a backup role with Berry in the 1970s were Bruce Springsteen and Steve Miller when each was just starting his career. Springsteen related in the documentary film Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll that Chuck Berry did not give the band a set list and expected the musicians to follow his lead after each guitar intro. Chuck Berry neither spoke to nor thanked the band after the show. Nevertheless, Springsteen backed Chuck Berry again when he appeared at the concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. At the request of Jimmy Carter, Chuck Berry performed at the White House on June 1, 1979.
Chuck Berry's touring style, travelling the "oldies" circuit in the 1970s,often being paid in cash by local promoters, added ammunition to the Internal Revenue Service's accusations that Chuck Berry had evaded paying income taxes. Facing criminal sanction for the third time, Chuck Berry pleaded guilty to tax evasion and was sentenced to four months in prison and 1,000 hours of community service,performing benefit concerts,in 1979
Chuck Berry continued to play 70 to 100 one-nighters per year in the 1980s, still traveling solo and requiring a local band to back him at each stop. In 1986, Taylor Hackford made a documentary film, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, of a celebration concert for Chuck Berry's sixtieth birthday, organized by Keith Richards. Eric Clapton, Etta James, Julian Lennon, Robert Cray and Linda Ronstadt, among others, appeared with Chuck Berry on stage and in the film.
In the late 1980s, Chuck Berry bought the Southern Air, a restaurant in Wentzville, Missouri. In 1990 he was sued by several women who claimed that he had installed a video camera in the bathroom. Chuck Berry claimed that he had the camera installed to catch a worker who was suspected of stealing from the restaurant. Though his guilt was never proved in court, Chuck Berry opted for a class action settlement. His lawyers said he had been the victim of a conspiracy to profit from his wealth. During this time Chuck Berry began using Wayne T. Schoeneberg as his legal counsel. Reportedly, a police raid on his house found intimate videotapes of women, one of whom being apparently a minor. Also found in the raid were 62 grams of marijuana. Felony drug and child-abuse charges were filed. As the child-abuse charges were dropped, Chuck Berry agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor possession of marijuana. He was given a six-month suspended jail sentence and two years' unsupervised probation and was ordered to donate $5,000 to a local hospital.
In November 2000, Chuck Berry faced legal issues when he was sued by his former pianist Johnnie Johnson, who claimed that he had co-written over 50 songs, including "No Particular Place to Go", "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Roll Over Beethoven", that credit Chuck Berry alone. The case was dismissed when the judge ruled that too much time had passed since the songs were written.
In 2008, Chuck Berry toured Europe, with stops in Sweden, Norway, Finland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Ireland, Switzerland, Poland and Spain. In mid-2008, he played at the Virgin Festival in Baltimore, Maryland. During a concert on New Year's Day 2011 in Chicago, Chuck Berry, suffering from exhaustion, passed out and had to be helped off stage.
Chuck Berry lived in Ladue, Missouri, approximately 10 miles (16 km) west of St. Louis. He regularly performed one Wednesday each month at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar located in the Delmar Loop neighborhood of St. Louis, from 1996 to 2014.
Chuck Berry announced on his 90th birthday that his first new studio album since Rock It in 1979, entitled 'Chuck', would be released in 2017. His first new record in 38 years, it includes his children, Charles Berry Jr. and Ingrid, on guitar and harmonica, with songs "covering the spectrum from hard-driving rockers to soulful thought-provoking time capsules of a life's work" and dedicated to his beloved wife of 68 years, Toddy.