Rock 'n' roll legend Chuck Berry dies

Chuck Berry in Monaco in 2009.
Chuck Berry in Monaco in 2009.

NEW YORK - Chuck Berry, rock 'n' roll's founding guitar hero who defined the music's joy and rebellion in such classics as Johnny B Goode, Sweet Little Sixteen and Roll Over Beethoven, has died. He was 90.

Emergency responders summoned to Berry's residence on Saturday by his caretaker found him unresponsive, police in Missouri's St Charles County said. Attempts to revive Berry failed, and he was pronounced dead shortly before 1.30pm local time (0430 AEDT Sunday).

Berry's core repertoire was some three dozen songs, his influence incalculable, from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to virtually any group from garage band to arena act that called itself rock 'n roll.

Chuck Berry - Johnny B-Goode

While Elvis Presley gave rock its libidinous, hip-shaking image, Berry was the auteur, setting the template for a new sound and way of life.

"Chuck Berry was a rock and roll original. A gifted guitar player, an amazing live performer, and a skilled songwriter whose music and lyrics captured the essence of 1950s teenage life," The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame said in a statement.

Well before the rise of Bob Dylan, Berry wedded social commentary to the beat and rush of popular music.

"He was singing good lyrics, and intelligent lyrics, in the '50s when people were singing, Oh, baby, I love you so," John Lennon once observed.

Berry, in his late 20s before his first major hit, crafted lyrics that spoke to the teenagers of the day and remained fresh decades later.

Sweet Little Sixteen captured rock 'n' roll fandom, an early and innocent ode to the young girls later known as "groupies".

Roll Over Beethoven was an anthem to rock's history-making power, while Rock and Roll Music was a guidebook for all bands that followed ("It's got a back beat, you can't lose it").

Chuck Berry in 1975.

Chuck Berry in 1975.

Johnny B Goode, the tale of a guitar-playing country boy whose mother tells him he'll be a star, was Berry's signature song, the archetypal narrative for would- be rockers and among the most ecstatic recordings in the music's history.

Johnny B Goode could have only been a guitarist. The guitar was rock 'n' roll's signature instrument and Berry's clarion sound, a melting pot of country flash and rhythm 'n blues drive, turned on at least a generation of musicians, among them the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards, who once acknowledged he had "lifted every lick" from his hero; the Beatles' George Harrison; Bruce Springsteen; and the Who's Pete Townshend.

Berry was born October 18, 1926, the third of six children whose father was a contractor and church deacon and whose mother was a schoolteacher. They lived in a relatively prosperous black section of St. Louis known as the Ville.

In the first of his brushes with the law, Berry was sent to a reformatory as a teenager for armed robbery. After his release at age 21, he worked in an auto plant and as a photographer and trained to be a hairdresser.

As he became a star, Berry irked some in St. Louis by acquiring property in a previously white area and opening his own nightclub, where another legal scrape nearly ended his career.

At a show in Texas in 1959, Berry had met a 14-year-old Native American girl and hired her to work at the St. Louis club. She was later fired and then arrested on a prostitution charge, which led to Berry being convicted for violating the Mann Act, transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. He was sent to prison in 1962 for a year-and-a-half.

Berry had more trouble in 1979 when he was convicted of tax evasion, serving four months in prison, and in the 1990s when a number of women accused him of videotaping them in the bathrooms of his restaurant-club in Wentzville, Missouri.

Berry continued playing a monthly show at a St. Louis nightclub into his late 80s. He received a Grammy award for lifetime achievement in 1984 and his 1986 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame made him part of the inaugural class.

Illustrating his influence, a recording of Johnny B. Goode was included in a collection of music sent into space aboard the unmanned 1977 Voyager I probe to provide aliens a taste of Earth culture.

Despite his reputation as a womaniser, Berry and his wife, Toddy, were married more than 60 years.