Chuck Berry, rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, dead at 90

Chuck Berry performs during the 2012 Awards for Lyrics of Literary Excellence at The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library And Museum on February 26, 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Marc Andrew Deley/Getty Images)

By Ralph Ellis, Todd Leopold and Tony Marco

(CNN) — Chuck Berry, a music pioneer often called “the Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” was found dead Saturday at a residence outside St. Louis, police in St. Charles County said. He was 90.

A post on the St. Charles County police Facebook page said officers responded to a medical emergency at a residence around 12:40 p.m. (1:40 p.m. ET) Saturday and found an unresponsive man inside.

“Unfortunately, the 90-year-old man could not be revived and was pronounced deceased at 1:26 p.m.,” the post said. “The St. Charles County Police Department sadly confirms the death of Charles Edward Anderson Berry Sr., better known as legendary musician Chuck Berry.”

Wrote rock classics

Berry wrote and recorded songs like “Johnny B. Goode” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” that became standards — songs every garage band and fledgling guitarist had to learn if they wanted to enter the rock ‘n’ roll fellowship.

Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones idolized him. Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys copied him. Bob Seger, recognizing Berry’s far-reaching influence, sang “All of Chuck’s children are out there playing his licks” in “Rock and Roll Never Forgets.”

“The poet laureate of rock and roll,” his biography on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says.

But perhaps John Lennon put it most succinctly. “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.'”

Berry took all-night hamburger stands, brown-eyed handsome men and V-8 Fords and turned them into the stuff of American poetry. By doing so, he gave rise to followers beyond number, bar-band disciples of the electric guitar, who carried his musical message to the far corners of the Earth and even into outer space.

The list of Berry’s classics is as well-known as his distinctive, chiming “Chuck Berry riff”: “Maybellene.” “Around and Around.” “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.” “School Days.” “Memphis.” “Nadine.” “No Particular Place to Go.”

They were deceptively simple tunes, many constructed with simple chord progressions and classic verse-chorus-verse formats, but their hearts could be as big as teenage hopes on a Saturday night.

His music even went into outer space. When the two Voyager spacecrafts were launched in 1977, each was accompanied on its journey out of the solar system by a phonograph record that contained sounds of Earth — including “Johnny B. Goode.”

Rock wordsmith

Berry, though, was modest about his influence.

“My view remains that I do not deserve all the reward directed on my account for the accomplishments credited to the rock ‘n’ roll bank of music,” he wrote in his 1987 autobiography.

He had a facility with lyrics others could only envy, words and phrases tossed off with a jazzman’s cool and a surgeon’s precision.

In “You Never Can Tell,” he summed up a newlywed couple’s life in fewer than two dozen words: “They furnished off an apartment with a two-room Roebuck sale / The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale.”

His delivery was often marked by humor, but he could also insert the scalpel when needed. After all, Berry — a black man who grew up in Jim Crow America, who was close to 30 when he had his first national hit — knew that those high schools were sometimes segregated, and those diners and highways didn’t always welcome him.

“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” could be read as the story of a brown-SKINNED handsome man, as rock critic Dave Marsh and others have noted; the Louisiana country boy of “Johnny B. Goode” wasn’t necessarily Caucasian.

Hard years

Or consider “Promised Land,” the story of a man escaping the South for California. He rides a Greyhound bus across Dixie, moves to a train to get “across Mississippi clean,” and finally enters the Golden State on a plane, dressed in a silk suit, “workin’ on a T-bone steak.” It was the American dream in miniature, a success all the sweeter for overcoming racial prejudice — never overtly mentioned but present all the same.

There was also a darkness and suspicion in Berry, for those who cared to look. He was notorious for making concert promoters pay him in full before his shows, cash only. In his late teens he served three years in a reformatory, and after becoming famous did jail time on a charge of transporting an underage girl across state lines. Years later he was convicted of tax evasion. He had the showman’s talent for saying much and revealing little.

“In my universe, Chuck is irreplaceable,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone in 2009. “All that brilliance is still there, and he’s still a force of nature. As long as Chuck Berry’s around, everything’s as it should be. This is a man who has been through it all. The world treated him so nasty. But in the end, it was the world that got beat.”