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Goodbye to Chuck Berry: Remembering the man who broke barriers on and off stage

A line of fans formed around the block outside the Pageant Theater in the Delmar Loop Sunday to say goodbye to rock 'n'roll legend and St. Louis native Chuck Berry.

They joined a capacity crowd of dignitaries, family and friends inside for a funeral that broke the mold — much like the legendary entertainer himself.

There was a red guitar inside the casket, his protégé performed the duck walk, and other big names in music sent flowers and paid tribute. The Rolling Stones sent flowers in the shape of a guitar. President Bill Clinton sent a letter that was read by U.S. Rep Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis. Paul McCartney sent condolences and praise.

Ultimately, people eulogized Berry for breaking racial barriers and creating a new musical genre.

Chuck Berry’s son, Charles “Butch” Berry Jr. said they were right to call his father a civil rights icon.

“He told me stories, Mom told me stories, about not being able to go here or go there because of this,” Berry Jr. said. "And, you know what? I guess he took that as a challenge: ‘You know what? I’m going to write music. And I bet you everybody’s going to get up and start having some fun.’ ”

Charles Berry Jr. speaks to guests at a memorial for his father, Chuck Berry. (April 9, 2017)
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Charles Berry Jr. speaks to guests at a memorial for his father, Chuck Berry.

Kiss front man Gene Simmons got choked up, saying he couldn’t let the day go by without coming to St. Louis and honoring Chuck Berry.  Simmons said Berry’s songs spoke to him as a young boy who moved to the United States from Israel in 1958.

“He changed more little white boys' and white girls’ lives than all the politicians with their big talk and stuff, just by grabbing hold of them and making them move like this,” Simmons said, dancing on stage.

Berry’s protégé, Billy Peek, prefaced his musical tribute of Berry's hit, "Johnny B. Goode" by saying, “I’m going to try to show you what a black man who grew up in the Ville on the north side taught a little white boy from the south side on Tower Grove: How to play.”  

Congressman Clay said Berry did more than create hit records.

“He combined his artistic genius with his enormous personal courage to help bring down the barriers of race, intolerance and bigotry in this country through his music,” Clay said. “For decades, he faced down hatred and discrimination in clubs, in concerts, in movies and in the criminal justice system and even in his personal life.

“At the same time that the Civil Rights Movement was awakening the nation to the struggle for justice and equality, Chuck used his music to break down the color barrier in popular culture,” Clay added. “He was the first black artist to become as popular with white audiences as he was with black audiences.”

Marshall Chess of Chess Records shared his memories of Chuck Berry signing with his dad’s label in 1955 when Chess was 13.

“I’m with my dad in the outer drive in Chicago, pushing buttons — for you young ones, radios used to have buttons you pushed to change the station — and he’s pushing buttons like crazy,” Chess said. “All of a sudden I hear ‘Maybelline’ and my dad flips. Bangs on the steering wheel. I said, ‘What is it?’ and he said ‘That was the biggest white radio station. The biggest white disc jockey. We made it.”

The music-rich memorial service featured a mix of genres fitting for Berry’s eclectic tastes. In addition to his own hit, "Johnny B. Goode," artists sang an operatic “Ave Maria” and a boogie-style version of the gospel hymn “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Johnny Rivers performed "Blue Suede Blues." Two of his grandchildren performed “Summertime” from the musical "Porgy and Bess."

Chuck Berry was laid to rest in Bellerive Gardens on April 9. He died on March 18. He was 90 years old.

Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille.