The Beatles never made any secret of the artists and music that inspired them. In the arsenal of early rockabilly pop culture that stirred the ‘Fab Four’ into action, Chuck Berry was the chief force. In fact, John Lennon even once remarked: “If you to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”
Speaking with Rolling Stone, McCartney was likewise full of admiration for the forefather of rock: “We learnt so many things from him which led us into a dream world of rock & roll music.” Though he confirmed that it was “not really possible to sum up what he meant to all us young guys growing up in Liverpool,” Macca delivered a fitting eulogy for the influential guitarist and songwriter. “From the first minute we heard the great guitar intro to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen,’ we became fans of the great Chuck Berry,” continued McCartney. “His stories were more like poems than lyrics – the likes of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ or ‘Maybellene.’”
He added: “Chuck was and is forevermore one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest legends all over the world. I was privileged to meet him in his home town St Louis when I played there on tour and it’s a memory I will cherish forever. It’s not really possible to sum up what he meant to all us young guys growing up in Liverpool but I can give it a try.”
In fact, The Beatles’ love of Chuck Berry was so profound that they were even accused of taking their influence too far. When it comes to ‘Come Together’ and Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ there are some who claim they paid him the greatest compliment of all: imitation. As Paul McCartney once said, “[John] originally brought [Come Together] over as a very perky little song, and I pointed out to him that it was very similar to Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’, John acknowledged it was rather close to it,” he told Miles B. in Many Years From Now, “I suggested that we tried it ‘swampy’ [and] we took [the tempo] right down.”
The shared line that gives the game away is “Here come a flat-top, he was, moving up…” Chuck Berry’s publishers filed a lawsuit and it was sorted out of court on the proviso that John Lennon recorded a cover of ‘You Can’t Catch Me’. The debt was figuratively paid but the legacy of appropriation still lingers to some extent. Aside from the nettlesome issue, one thing is patently clear — just how much they loved the duck walking progenitor.
When Paul McCartney appeared on the iconic British show Desert Island Discs and fulfilled the fateful task of picking eight records that he couldn’t live without, of course, a Berry tune sat firmly in the midst. “With Chuck Berry, I chose ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ because it just sums him up really,” McCartney declared.
As it happens, the song itself, released in 1958 almost prognosticated what was to come for The Beatles as it focuses on the monomania of a young autograph insistent upon getting the autograph of each headliner on the tour. “She couldn’t have seen one act on the show – unless it was mine,” Berry jokingly recalled regarding his seminal song that would go on to inspire the Beach Boys and their song ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’.
As with many of Berry’s songs The Beatles would go on to cover ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ as part of their 1963 Live at the BBC sessions. As ever with Berry covers Lennon took the lead vocals and the track become somewhat of a safe fallback for the ‘Fab Four’. When touring got hectic in 1964 he even remarked: “We might change the programme for the Olympia tomorrow, and put in some of the early rock numbers we used to do in Hamburg and at the Cavern – like ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and things. Easy.” Clearly, it remains a song that McCartney has loved ever since.