By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI (ANS – March 23, 2017) — I was in the state Chuck Berry helped make famous when I heard the news that the musical icon had died. While watching a sporting event in Kansas City I received a push notification from CNN that St. Louis, Missouri native, rock and roll pioneer, and guitar legend Chuck Berry died at age 90.
For a moment I was stunned. All I could do was hum one of his songs and stare at the field, reporting the news to my wife and son. Of course I knew that all good things must pass, including people. But Chuck Berry seemed timeless, a work of art, a man born to live on. And maybe through his music he’s doing just that. But for now I had to process that one of the architects of rock and roll had left this earth.
How Berry arrived on earth was as natural as how he departed it. Berry was born on October 28th, 1926 in Missouri to a middle class family. And ninety years later he died in the state of his birth on March 18th. Everything in between the two dates is rock and roll history. According to the St. Charles, Missouri police Berry was found unresponsive in his home. The cause of his death was reported as cardiac arrest.
My first recollection of Chuck Berry was in association with Buddy Holly. If my memory serves me correctly, I learned about both of them around the same time. I don’t recall all of the details on how Berry entered my consciousness, but I think it was through his guitar playing and something I saw on TV, showcasing his unique guitar dance. Many of the people I looked up to had, in turn, looked up to Berry, including John Lennon. As it turned out Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly did tour together in 1957, both having hit songs on the radio, for Berry it was Roll Over Beethoven. The tour they were part was Alan Freed’s “Biggest Show of Stars.” Freed, if you recall, was one of the first DJ’s to promote rock and roll.
But Berry’s jump-start into music happened before his hit in 1956/1957. In 1955 Berry moved to Chicago where he met blues legend Muddy Waters. Waters connected him to Chess Records. It was with Chess Records that Berry scored his first hit Maybelline, selling over a million copies. Maybelline eventually reached number one on the Billboard charts. By the end of the 1950’s Berry’s status as a musician was rising. With songs such as School Days, Rock and Roll Music, Sweet Little Sixteen, and Johnnie B. Goode, his station among the stars was secure: he was a bona-fide musical galaxy.
By the 1960’s the British Invasion bands were covering his songs, keeping his music and influence alive and well in the popular media, not that was needed. In the 1970’s Berry was playing for presidents and peers — including Jimmy Carter, Bruce Springsteen, and Steve Miller. But it was with the inaugural ceremony of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 that his brilliance was best broadcast: He was the first to be inducted, along with other rock and roll architects, Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, and Fats Domino. Later, Rolling Stones magazine credited him as one of the most influential guitarist and musicians of all time.
As with anyone who has died, one wonders about his or her faith. Did they have one? Berry considered himself a “lapsed Baptist.” His father was a Baptist deacon. And Berry credits the church for inspiring his singing and musical start. In his biography Down Bound Train Berry talked about his “fire and brimstone” upbringing. Maybe his Christian rearing sided too much with hell and not enough heaven. It’s hard to tell. What is known is that in his early teens Berry was in trouble with the law, even incarcerated on a few occasions. But one can’t judge faith by youthful folly. For all his personal ups and downs what can be said is that Berry valued marriage: he remained married for 68 years to Themetta Suggs-Berry, calling her his “inspiration.” His last recorded album (to be released soon) was dedicated to her. From this standpoint, some of the Christian virtues his parents taught him stuck. And maybe so, too, the faith of his fathers!
What Berry really believed is unknown, but what is believed about Berry — by millions across the globe — is that he will be missed.
Fellow musician, Bob Dylan Tweeted: “Thank you for everything Chuck Berry! We will never forget you! May you rest in peace now.”
And fellow bard, Bruce Springsteen, wrote: “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.”
Country icon Keith Urban stated, “RIP Chuck Berry !!!! Thank you for the poetry, the passion and the potency! GO JOHNNY GO.”
Even famed writer Stephen King chimed in, writing: “Chuck Berry died. This breaks my heart, but 90 years old ain’t bad for rock and roll. Johnny B. Goode forever.”
But maybe it was John Lennon’s quote before his own death that summarized the influence of Chuck Berry the most: “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’”
Photo captions: 1) Farewell Chuck Berry. 2) Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan. 2) Chuck Berry and Mick Jagger. 4) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.
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