Sweet Little Sixteen/Surfin’ USA: Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider Sweet Little Sixteen, a terrific “roots of rock ‘n roll” song. We will review the original by Chuck Berry, and a cover of that song by The Rolling Stones. We also include the song Surfin’ USA by The Beach Boys.

Chuck Berry and Sweet Little Sixteen:

We first encountered Chuck Berry in our blog post on Back in the USA. So we will briefly review his career here.

Charles Anderson “Chuck” Berry is one of the greatest rock ‘n roll pioneers. Growing up in St. Louis, he quickly became interested in rhythm and blues, and he began performing with a trio headed by pianist Johnnie Johnson. The group established a strong regional reputation, which earned Chuck an audition in 1955 with Leonard Chess of Chess Records.  Below is a photo of Chuck Berry in 1956, holding his Gibson hollow-body electric guitar.

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Apparently the Chess brothers were uninterested in adding Chuck to their stable of blues singers – after all, they already had artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. At some point in the audition, apparently Chuck was asked something like “Why don’t you play us your worst song?”

At that point, Chuck and the boys broke into one of their ‘black hillbilly’ songs. As it happened, the Johnnie Johnson Trio would occasionally mix country songs into their playlist of blues and ballads, and they turned out to be very popular with their fans. The producer urged Berry to write his own version of a ‘hillbilly’ song; this became Chuck’s first hit Maybellene, which was released in 1955 and made it to #1 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts.

Maybellene set Chuck Berry off and running into rock music history. He and his band, with Johnnie Johnson on piano and blues great Willie Dixon on upright bass, put out a string of hits, all following the same basic formula. The songs featured Chuck’s rapid-fire lyrics that painted a vivid word-picture. This was combined with his signature rock guitar riffs, which became standards for rock guitarists.

Chuck Berry was also a master showman. Chuck would throw in splits, move across the floor with nifty dance steps, he would swing and sway back and forth with his guitar, and early on he added his signature move, the duck-walk. Over roughly a five-year period, Chuck Berry charted a number of hits that established him as one of the great pioneers in rock music.

Chuck also had a keen understanding of the irony that, as a 30-year old black ex-con, he was writing songs and selling records primarily to an audience of middle-class white teen-agers. But regardless of this, Chuck’s lyrics were really terrific, and his songs effectively conveyed to his teen audiences the joys and frustrations of growing up in America.

Sweet Little Sixteen is a classic example of Chuck’s song-writing skills. It describes the experiences of a popular high-school girl who loves to dance and attend concerts. Berry reviews the fact that this is a nation-wide phenomenon, by cataloging the various locations where rock and roll is thriving.

They’re really rockin’ in Boston
In Pittsburgh, Pa.
Deep in the heart of Texas
And round the ‘Frisco Bay
All over St.Louis
And down in New Orleans
All the cats wanna dance with
Sweet Little Sixteen

So here is Chuck Berry performing Sweet Little Sixteen live at the BBC Theater in London in 1972.

What a great clip! This shows you what Chuck can do when he has a band that knows how to rock. In this particular song his rapid-fire patter is at its best. Berry had an incredible ability to channel the emotions that every teenager was experiencing.

This is particularly well expressed in the sequence where the young girl plays her parents off against one another, in an attempt to get permission to attend an event.

“Oh Mommy, Mommy
Please may I go
It’s such a sight to see
Somebody steal the show”
“Oh Daddy, Daddy
I beg of you
Whisper to Mommy
It’s all right with you”

Although Chuck Berry was a great rock ‘n roll innovator and performer, he nevertheless made some unfortunate decisions. For various reasons, Berry would frequently tour without a band. This saved him money, as instead of paying a touring band he could just hire local backup musicians for scale. It was not unusual for Chuck to show up immediately before a performance and simply instruct the musicians ‘follow me.’

Even for rock groups familiar with Berry’s work, there were awkward moments trying to follow his lead, or figure out the key in which the song was being played. However, it was not unusual for Chuck to end up with musicians who had little exposure to rock music, leading to really bad outcomes. For example, here is Chuck playing Sweet Little Sixteen at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

Although there is an all-star jazz band behind him, the performance is basically just Chuck on solo guitar, with the musicians sitting motionless behind him. In the middle of the song the clarinet player gamely attempts a solo, but the result is something like “Dixieland meets rock ‘n roll.” With the exception of the clarinet solo, the drummer thumps the drum once at the end of each stanza. Pretty lame!

Over the years Chuck Berry has received virtually every honor in the field. He was a shoo-in for induction into the 1986 inaugural class at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One of the comments in his bio was that he “laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance.” How true! Chuck also is ranked fifth on the Rolling Stone 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

The Rolling Stones and Sweet Little Sixteen:

We previously discussed the Rolling Stones and their career in our blog post on the song It’s All Over Now. We will briefly summarize their career here.

The Rolling Stones formed in the early 1960s as part of a British blues revival scene. They then switched from blues covers to rock and roll in about 1963. Their most famous early lineup is shown in the photo below, which shows the Rolling Stones during an American tour in Oct. 1965. Back, L to R: Brian Jones, Bill Wyman; front L to R: Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards.

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One of the most dramatic aspects of rock music bands is the extraordinary turnover in the membership of a group. In many cases, group members leave every couple of years. In contrast to this pattern, the Stones have been remarkably stable over the years,

Brian Jones was fired by the Stones in 1969, as he was incapacitated by drug use at the time. Jones was replaced by Mick Taylor.  But after considerable friction with Keith Richards, Taylor left to pursue other interests in 1974. Guitarist Ron Wood subsequently replaced Taylor, and that lineup remained intact until bassist Bill Wyman left the group in 1993.

For decades now, the Rolling Stones have managed to live up to their reputation as one of the great rock and roll bands. Jagger and Richards have written an extraordinary number of classic rock songs. The Stones occasionally tinker with their hit-making formula – they return to their roots with a classic blues cover from time to time, and they issued a psychedelic album in the late 60s. But for the most part they simply continue to rock and roll.

The Stones certainly paid their dues. Before Jagger and Richards began writing original songs, the Stones covered songs by a number of artists. They released covers of blues artists like Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf. And they also produced a number of covers of ‘roots’ rock and rollers such as Chuck Berry.

Here are the Rolling Stones live performing Sweet Little Sixteen at a concert in Texas, as part of their 1978 “Some Girls” tour.

Pretty great, huh? We see why the Stones earned the monicker The World’s Greatest Rock Band. In addition to Mick Jagger’s vocals and Keith Richards’ lead guitar, the group includes Ron Wood on guitar, Bill Wyman on bass and Charlie Watts on drums.

As usual, Mick gives you his wonderful rock/blues vocals, slyly sneaking in some impressive dance moves as well. Both Keith and Ron provide terrific guitar riffs, showing off what they learned from Chuck.  And as one of rock’s certified `bad boys,’ Mick can’t resist changing Chuck’s lyric “tight dresses and lipstick” to the more provocative “tight dresses and Tampax.” 

I recommend watching the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll. This 1987 production was directed by Taylor Hackford and centers around two concerts held in St. Louis to celebrate Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday. Keith Richards appears as one of the guest artists, and it is abundantly clear that Keith spent many hours perfecting Chuck’s classic guitar riffs. It is also clear from this video of Sweet Little Sixteen that Chuck Berry’s vocals influenced Mick Jagger’s style.

Well, this post is already getting pretty long, but I could not resist sharing this next tidbit.  For a while, the Beatles had a weekly show on the BBC.  They would play live music, and they frequently included covers from their big backlist of tunes that inspired them.  Here is the audio of the Beatles in a live performance of Sweet Little Sixteen.

Between them, the Beatles and Stones pretty much covered the field of modern rock and roll.  For the most part, the Stones stuck with R&B and soul, while the Beatles were masters of pop and rock.  The two bands rarely crossed paths in their musical choices, but as you can see they met at Chuck Berry.

Rock on, dudes!

The Beach Boys and Surfin’ USA:

The Beach Boys were one of the greatest rock and roll groups in history. They were formed in 1961 in California, and initially were primarily a family band. The three Wilson brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl teamed up with cousin Mike Love and family friend David Marks. They were initially known as the Pendletones, named after the Pendleton wool shirts popular with California surfers.

The photo below shows the cover of the August 1962 record Surfin’ Safari. When the song was released, the group was shocked to find that their record company had re-named the group The Beach Boys, to capitalize on their identification with surfing culture. The group are wearing wool Pendleton shirts. L to R: Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, David Marks.

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At first, the Beach Boys sang while the instrumental work was provided by studio musicians. However, the brothers gradually became rather proficient on various instruments – Carl on electric guitar, Brian on bass and Dennis on drums. David Marks left fairly early and was replaced by Al Jardine. Jardine, together with Mike Love and the three Wilson brothers, made up the best-known Beach Boys lineup of the 60s.

The Beach Boys soon replaced the wool Pendleton shirts with their classic combination of striped shirts and white pants, as shown in the photo below. L to R: Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love.

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Early on, the Beach Boys were managed by Murry Wilson, the father of the three Wilson brothers. However, it immediately became clear that Brian Wilson was the brains of the outfit. Brian wrote the songs, oversaw the productions, and began taking control of all major decisions. In sharp contrast to Brian’s brilliance, Murry seemed to have truly awful instincts regarding the group’s musical directions and financial decisions. Once Murry was ousted as the group’s agent, Brian took charge.

The good news was that Brian Wilson was a musical genius. His writing was incredibly creative. In the studio, he pioneered a number of innovative techniques. Brian worked closely with a group of West Coast studio musicians now called the Wrecking Crew. His work became progressively more complex and novel. All of this culminated in the Beach Boys’ seminal 1966 album Pet Sounds.

That album is now considered one of the greatest pop projects of all times. In addition to extremely sophisticated vocal harmonies, recording techniques and instrumental arrangements, the album also incorporated a number of unique sounds – sleigh bells, bicycle horns, barking dogs.

Pet Sounds was basically a Brian Wilson solo project. In that album Brian shared very personal experiences and thoughts. The other Beach Boys simply showed up to record their vocals, and otherwise had essentially no input into the project.

The bad news is that Brian Wilson found himself under terrific strain. A combination of drug-related and mental health issues made Brian withdraw more and more to himself. Brian was able to oversee one more record – the stunning, extraordinarily complex 1966 single Good Vibrations. However, that project took an exceptionally long time to complete, for what was at the time an unprecedented cost.

Eventually Brian became unable to function normally; as a result, he was unable to complete his next album, Smile. That particular project eventually became the most controversial and anticipated ‘unfinished album’ of all time. Wilson did release an album called Smile in 2004, but from all accounts it represents a radically different concept from the one he began in 1966.

Another piece of bad news was that Pet Sounds did not sell as well as the Beach Boys’ previous albums. The more esoteric and challenging songs in this album did not attract the widespread support that the group had experienced with their earlier surfer songs. Pet Sounds was a critical success but a commercial disappointment.

Early in their career, after suffering a panic attack on an airplane flight, Brian decided to stop touring with the Beach Boys; thereafter, he did all his work in the studio. So videos like the Surfin’ USA clip which we will see shortly, featuring Brian Wilson performing with the Beach Boys, are relatively rare.

You might ask, why are we including Surfing’ USA in a blog post about the song Sweet Little Sixteen? It’s because the melody of Surfin’ USA is identical to that of Sweet Little Sixteen! Brian Wilson made no secret of this – after hearing Chuck Berry’s tune, he mentioned to a surfer friend, Jimmy Bowles:
‘What about trying to put surf lyrics to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’s melody? The concept was about, ‘They are doing this in this city, and they’re doing that in that city’ So I said to Jimmy, ‘Hey Jimmy, I want to do a song mentioning all the surf spots.’ So he gave me a list.”
The song proceeds to list a number of surfing spots, mainly in California, although two beaches in Hawaii and one in Australia appear in the list. Some of the lyrics in the song are:

You’d catch ’em surfin’ at Del Mar
Ventura County line
Santa Cruz and Trestle
Australia’s Narrabeen
All over Manhattan
And down Doheny Way
Everybody’s gone surfin’, Surfin’ U.S.A.

Originally, the songwriter of Surfin’ USA was listed as ‘Brian Wilson.’ Currently it is listed as `Chuck Berry,’ as Brian’s father Murry gave the songwriting credits to Berry’s record company after they complained that the tune was basically Chuck’s. It would seem appropriate to list both Chuck Berry and Brian Wilson as co-writers of the song.

And here are the Beach Boys in a live performance of Surfin’ USA. This was filmed on March 14, 1964 at the NBC TV studios in Burbank, CA and was released decades later on DVD as The Beach Boys: the Lost Concert. Mike Love sings lead vocals, Brian Wilson plays bass and sings the falsetto parts, Carl and Al Jardine are on guitar and Dennis plays drums.

Although the Beach Boys concert footage has important historical value, the production values stink. The video is barely tolerable, and the audio balance is terrible – you can barely hear the instruments. So here is the Spotify audio of Surfin’ USA.

That’s better! You can easily see why the Beach Boys were the kings of surf rock. Their vocal style, stimulated by groups like the Four Freshmen and by harmonies borrowed from barbershop quartets, is impressive and very creative. Carl Wilson’s guitar licks are a close copy of the surf guitar stylings of musicians like Dick Dale. No one could touch the Beach Boys when it came to surf pop. Even their major commercial competitors such as Jan and Dean, or Ronnie and the Daytonas, would often score hits with tunes written by Brian Wilson.

The movie Love and Mercy gives an account of Brian Wilson’s drug and mental health issues, and his subsequent breakdown. Eventually Brian became a patient of a highly controversial psychotherapist, Eugene Landy. Supporters of Landy will argue that although his methods were unconventional, he did manage to get Brian off illegal drugs and get his weight under control.  Below is a photo of Landy and Brian Wilson circa 1985. Wilson’s weight ballooned to over 300 pounds at the peak of his drug and mental health issues.

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On the other hand, Landy’s detractors claim that he was unprofessionally enriching himself at the expense of Brian Wilson, that he was a dangerous control freak, and that his treatment methods may have actually exacerbated Wilson’s condition. After some period of time, Brian’s brother Dennis and his girlfriend and eventual wife Melinda Ledbetter managed to extract an agreement whereby Landy agreed to sunder his ties with Brian, and surrender his license to practice in California.

Given the vehement criticism of Landy and his methods, Brian Wilson himself has been surprisingly positive about his former therapist. “I still feel that there was benefit. I try to overlook the bad stuff and be grateful for what he taught me.”

Source Material:
Wikipedia, Sweet Little Sixteen
Wikipedia, Chuck Berry
Wikipedia, The Rolling Stones
Wikipedia, The Beach Boys
Wikipedia, Brian Wilson
Wikipedia, Surfin’ U.S.A.
Wikipedia, Eugene Landy

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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