CHUCK BERRY - Sweet Little Sixteen

Many years ago while descending an escalator at Leicester Square tube having had drink taken I incurred the displeasure of an aggressive gentleman with a shaved head by accidently bumping into him. Realising that he might commit violence against my person I decided to play a flanker. “Do You like Chuck Berry?” I asked him and without waiting for response, continued: “I love him. He’s great.” I then proceeded to sing my favourite Chuck Berry song to him, quite loud. Assuming he was in the presence of a madman, he fled. Thanks Chuck, or Charles as he prefers to known, as I discovered when I met him for the first and only time in 1973 in LA.
     The song I sang was ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ which dates from early 1958, when I was 11 going on 12. Chuck Berry’s songs are the foundation stones for rock’n’roll, without which many groups, not least The Rolling Stones, wouldn’t have had a career. He was also a poet, a chronicler of teenage lives in lyrics that managed to convey the essence of being young in America, often in love, in short sweet simple couplets with which his audience could readily identify. Many of his songs mentioned US towns and cities, as does this, and thus amplified the identification factor. Here our heroine is a 16-year-old girl who just loves her rock’n’roll but has to balance her enthusiasm with school on Monday. In the meantime she’s having the time of her life, and it scoots along in an effortless rock’n’roll groove, the rhythm guitar barred chords hammering on the beat and a bar-room piano adding to the fun. I played this song to death on the juke box in the coffee bar in Skipton (see previous post on ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’) before handing over my pocket money to buy the 7” on London American. Only much later did I learn that Bandstand was the name of a TV show filmed in Philadelphia. 
     Of course The Beach Boys stole the melody for ‘Surfin’ USA’. Chuck sued and won. Can’t say I blame him. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

"Chuck Berry’s songs are the foundation stones ..." I tend to agree - might not be the "best" time/place, considering I'm "biased" in favor of the Taylor/Richards combo but here goes...
Anyhow, for years I'd sort of been "leery" of everybody heaping praise on K. Richards [notable exceptions "Sympathy" being first of several] guitars and instead suspicious Jones/Taylor/Cooder/(maybe)Wood did all the heavy lifting especially live - even Al Perkins on "Torn & Frayed" from Exile makes seem "Richards is along for the ride" in many instances ... but a single live performance "essentially changed my opinion of some of that" - thenceforth I'm "smiling on Kieth" so to speak; that was the "Faces Final Concert" with Richards guest appearance in December 1974, filmed/performed at Kilburn (London) - lousy video and good sound. Anyhow, "loose but tight" renditions of Sweet Little Rock 'n Roller (or is it Little Queenie?) are just SO superlative couldn't hardly believe what I was seeing/hearing. Always believed Stones' covers of Chuck Berry were impeccable esp. "Bye Bye Johnny" ... yet those seemed "rote covers and rather strict copies" instead of interpretive; not the case with Richards next to Woody at the Faces finale; Richards' takes freedom to roam so to speak and the results are phenomenal. Apart from "Sympathy" around the time of Altamont, I'd struggled to see anything "virtuoso" about Richards; the night of joining the Faces on stage (for me) changed things - I think it's fair to say on that occasion he "brought virtuosity" or at least something unique in a public display of Berry-styled guitar "once and for all."
With Taylor's absence I get the distinct impression the downhill-slide in live performance by the Rolling Stones was remarkably precipitous despite Ron Wood doing anything he could to stop it? "Faces Final" (sections w/ Richards ONLY) is a real gem ("incredible even" to my ears) of a show-segment and nothing I've ever seen/heard of the Stones since comes close. Maybe it's just me, but I'd be damn curious what critics (with a penchant for C. Berry) think of this gig - in particular the medley containing the Berry material (great take on Sam Cooke too) and then there's "Sweet Little Rock 'n Roller" ... MUCH better than what's on Ya Yas e.g. four years later yet EITHER is the work of a mature guitarist. So what surprises me goes contrary; it's SHOCKING Richards is playing Berry-inspired material alarmingly well at such a (relatively) late date ... almost as if he's "out to show this off" (either for Woody with whom he was already gigging with the Stones - or once-and-for-all as I'd mentioned) and he actually pulls it off. Remarkable. Actually, the playing Woody does w/ Richards that night was the best I know of HIM (w/ Richards) as well. Since they were already playing live together (presumably since I haven't heard any Stones boots after Brussels ['73 I think]) I can't help but wonder if this level of talent together was elsewhere on display. It's a mystery to me.