One time, Brian Wilson hummed Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.”
A classic Berry lyric, the song is about a young girl who goes on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand TV show, and—after a number of USA cities are listed—the hook of the song is “All the cats want to dance with Sweet Little Sixteen.”
For Wilson, humming the tune struck him with the idea of putting surf lyrics to the melody. So he asked his girlfriend’s surfer brother to make a list of famous surf spots and Brian wrote a knockoff tune that he called “Surfin’ USA.” In March 1963, “Surfin’ USA” made a big splash for the Beach Boys on the Billboard Hot 100. New lyrics or not, it was a Chuck Berry cover, the first by a protégé of the 1960s youth culture that was only beginning to explode.
As a kid I played flute for a marching band run by a local music store. After practice one day I bought “Surfin USA” and the Chantays’ “Pipeline” from the singles bin. They were my first music purchases, a sort of right-of-passage moment. Chuck Berry didn’t have writer’s credit in that record (years later he would be listed as co-writer of “Surfin’ USA”) and I’m quite sure I never heard of him.
But, it was a prescient choice. If the 1950s were Chuck Berry’s musical heyday, the 1960s became the decade he hovered like a spiritual father over the new youth culture’s music scene.
But what was the man himself up to at that time?
A few years earlier, on tour Berry brought a fourteen-year-old Apache girl from Texas to work at his nightclub in St. Louis. He was arrested on Mann Act charges—the federal law which prohibited transporting females across state lines for “immoral purposes”—and sentenced to serve in an Indiana prison. Berry served 22 months until his release in October 1963.
About that experience, Berry would write in his 1987 autobiography: “It may be odd to some but I’ve always believed that no place or condition can really hinder a person from being free if he has an active, imaginative mind.” However, to outside observers, serving hard time did take a toll on Chuck Berry. Carl Perkins—whose own “Blue Suede Shoes” was referenced in “Roll Over Beethoven”—toured England with Berry later in 1964. He never saw a man so changed.
“He had been an easygoing guy before,” Perkins told a Berry biographer in 1991, “The kind of guy who’d jam in dressing rooms, sit and swap licks and jokes. In England he was cold, real distant and bitter.”
In June 1964, the Rolling Stones dropped in at Chess Records studio to record covers from the legendary canons of Berry, Bo Didley, Muddy Waters, and Howln’ Wolf. Former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman wrote in his 1991 memoir that Berry showed up at the session and stayed a while. “This was the nicest I can remember him ever being,” wrote Wyman, “But then, we were making money for him.”
Several tracks from the Chess sessions were released on early Stones’ albums. One of them, Berry’s “Around and Around,” was the opening track of the Stones’ 12X5. It was the first Stones album I became familiar with, and I still feel that with this track the Stones’ created the cleanest, best Chuck Berry cover in the ’60s.
Berry himself recorded new tunes at Chess later that August. Four charted on Billboard’s 100: “No Particular Place to Go,” “You Never Can Tell,” “Promised Land,” and “Little Marie.”
But—perhaps underscoring that the rock’n’roll torch was now in the hands of a new generation—Berry’s long running songwriting peak ended with these sessions. Berry continued writing and recording until at least 2000, but he never made memorable tunes again of the caliber of the 50 plus great songs he wrote during 1955-1964.
By 1967, Berry’s creative contributions to rock’n’roll were widely praised. Chess collected 24 songs in a respectful two-album set that was a best seller called “The Golden Decade.” In 1968, the Beatles’ “The White Album’” opened with “Back in the USSR”, a homage to Berry’s “Back in the USA.” In 1969, the first line in Abby Road’s opener “Come Together” is “here comes old flattop,” straight out of Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.”
Berry was revered by nearly every rock’n’roller from San Francisco to London, including Jimi Hendrix. One of the best-quality films of Hendrix on stage was Jimi Plays Berkeley (1970), a concert film that included a blistering attack of Berry’s autobiographical “Johnny B. Goode.” If you haven’t seen this before, prepare yourself: