UNIVERSITY CITY, Mo. – The image is timeless Americana: Chuck Berry hunched over, ready to launch into his famous Duck Walk, picking his Gibson guitar and wailing a song.
It’s the image captured in the statue of the man considered by many to be the father of rock and roll, dedicated Friday in the University City Loop area of suburban St. Louis.
Berry, now 84, still performs monthly at Blueberry Hill, a club and restaurant across the street from the new statue. He spoke only briefly at the dedication ceremony on a sweltering day as hundreds paid tribute to the St. Louis native.
“I don’t know how to speak – I can sing a little bit,” Berry, wearing his signature captain’s hat and bolo tie, said after thanking people for braving the heat to come out. “I’m going to say thank you again and I love you all.”
Other legends of rock paid tribute to the man whose many hits included “Johnny B. Goode,” ”Sweet Little Sixteen,” ”Roll Over Beethoven” and countless others.
In recorded messages, Little Richard called Berry “the greatest entertainer in the world.” Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry called him “a national treasure.”
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“When I had a chance to jam with him on his 80th birthday it was the highlight of my career,” Perry said.
A contemporary of Berry’s, Ron Isley of the Isley Brothers, spoke at the dedication and praised Berry as rock and roll’s leading pioneer in the 1950s.
“He is the one that started the whole thing,” Isley said. “It’s the song, the dance, the songwriting, the producing.”
The 8-foot-tall, 1,200-pound statue was sculpted by Harry Weber, also a St. Louis native, whose other works include a Bobby Orr statue in Boston, a statue of Lewis and Clark on the St. Louis riverfront and sculptures of sports figures at Busch Stadium and 11 other stadiums. About $100,000 was raised for the project, funded entirely with private donations.
“Thanks, Chuck, for providing the soundtrack for my youth,” said Weber, 69.
Eric Wofford, 48, of suburban St. Louis, stood with the help of a cane at the dedication but danced with his good leg as a Baptist church group performed Berry songs. He said the first album he ever purchased was one of Berry’s in 1973.
“I dropped that album on the turntable and laid the needle down, and it changed my whole point of view,” Wofford said. “It opened my eyes. He overcame any segregation. He cut through every class, white or black, upper class or lower class. He appealed to everyone.”
Berry was born in St. Louis in 1926. His first performance was at Sumner High School in 1941, said Blueberry Hill owner Joe Edwards, who spearheaded the drive for the statue along with KMOX Radio’s Charlie Brennan.
Berry began his career playing St. Louis-area clubs before landing a record contract in the mid-1950s. He later became an original member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
“Chuck Berry,” Edwards said, “became the era’s premiere poet.”