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Godfather and godmother of Rock N’ Roll, Chuck Berry and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Posted by Walter Gido on

Godfather and godmother of Rock N’ Roll, Chuck Berry and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Chuck Berry once said his entire career was "one long Sister Rosetta Tharpe impersonation." Chuck Berry was perhaps the defining musician of the early rock & roll era, the one figure responsible for the music's sound, style, and sensibility that created the blueprint for the generations that followed. A guitarist who wanted to play like T-Bone Walker and croon like Nat King Cole, Berry married these two styles to a swinging beat that spliced jump blues with juke joint R&B and hillbilly boogie -- a blend that arrived nearly fully realized with his 1955 debut single "Maybellene," a record that topped the R&B charts and crashed into the pop Top Ten.

Berry quickly followed "Maybellene" with a series of fleet-fingered, quick-witted singles like "Roll Over Beethoven," "School Day," "Sweet Little Sixteen," and "Johnny B. Goode" that constitute one of the richest and deepest American songbooks of the 20th century, a collection of tunes that captures the exuberance of post-war popular culture, a period filled with automobiles, teenagers, and rock & roll music. It was also a period of great racial strife, something Berry alluded to in his work -- witness the Black pride of "Brown Eyed Handsome Man."


Berry's prison sentence for violating the Mann Act coincided with a cooling of rock & roll's commercial fortunes in the early 1960s. When he was released, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had revived rock & roll, an opening Berry seized with a series of terrific hit singles: "No Particular Place to Go," "You Never Can Tell," and "Nadine." During the late '60s, Berry became the only one of his rock & roll peers to actively court a younger audience of hippies, a move that eventually paid off in 1972 when the ribald "My Ding-A-Ling" gave him his only number one hit.

Berry effectively retired from active duty after 1979's Rockit, but he continued to play regular gigs with pickup bands and experienced the occasional revival, such as Taylor Hackford's 1987 celebratory concert film and documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll. During his later years, Berry retired to his hometown of St. Louis, playing regular gigs at Blueberry Hill until the late 2010s. Upon his 90th birthday in 2016, Berry announced the release of his first album in decades but he would not live to see the release of Chuck in 2017; he passed on March 18, 2017.

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