Local authorities didn’t give a cause of death, but Chuck’s son said his father had ailed from pneumonia in recent weeks.
Berry was best-known writing and performing for the early 1950s songs “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Maybelline” and literally a few dozen other songs that became the template of rock ‘n’ roll — and a lot of road songs.
He also covered a few tunes during his career, including this 1961 version of Bobby Troup’s “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.” It found a new lease on life by its inclusion to the soundtrack if the 2006 Disney-Pixar movie “Cars.” It recently finished third in a reader’s poll for the best version of that song, finishing only behind Nat King Cole and the Rolling Stones.
I’ll let other writers write about Berry’s massive influence on pop culture (including this one).
But I hold memories to pass along of Chuck Berry. In addition to listening to him a lot during the 1980s on what then were newfangled things called compact discs, I saw him perform about a half-dozen times during the late 1990s and early 2000s — all in the basement nightclub of Blueberry Hill in University City, Missouri, just west of St. Louis.
Berry had become friends with Blueberry Hill’s owner and received a standing invitation to perform there once a month — which he did more than 200 times. (Chuck’s guitar on which he wrote “Johnny B. Goode” also remains in a security-installed display case at Blueberry Hill’s main entrance.) It wasn’t easy to secure one of those 300 tickets or so for Berry’s once-a-month gigs, but they weren’t difficult if you kept your eyes open, either.
I’d long heard about Chuck turning surly or taciturn if things went bad early in a gig. One of those occurred when he gotten a too-short guitar cord to his amplifier. He didn’t complain, but he ended the show after barely an hour.
However, we saw many more terrific performances. We soon learned Chuck would put on a good show if 1) his longtime pianist, Johnnie Johnson, was in town and decided to sit in; or 2) his daughter, Ingrid, was an opening act or supporting musician during Chuck’s set. Either one of these two would kick Chuck in a butt and prompt him to raise his game.
At one show during the “Johnny B. Goode” finale, he strolled off the stage at the beginning of his last guitar solo, strolled into a nearby dressing room and sat for photographs with a few fans inside — all while tearing off one terrific guitar lick after the other without losing the tempo or flubbing a note.
After the song ended, the show was over. There was no encore, and with that kind of exit, why should there be? He was approaching 80 years old at this time, and he proved he still could be a rock ‘n’ roll god.
(Image of Chuck Berry in 2007 by Dena Flows via Flickr)