When Chuck Berry Became a Beach Boy
A copyright is supposed to protect a creator’s intellectual property and ensure that the copyright holder’s work isn’t nefariously misappropriated. However, as anyone who has fond memories of Napster circa 2000 knows, they don’t always work so well. Not all copyright battles are Metallica-initiated, though.
If you think the wholesale pilfering of songs began when Vanilla Ice swiped the bass line from David Bowie and Queen’s song “Under Pressure” for “Ice, Ice Baby,” think again. Far more revered artists have given in to the temptation to lift more than a chord or two. Take, for instance, The Beach Boys’s classic anthem “Surfin’ USA.”
The 1963 hit single listed Beach Boy Brian Wilson as the sole composer of the track, but the melody was a complete replication of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.”
For his part, Wilson denied any intentional wrongdoing. "I just took 'Sweet Little Sixteen' and rewrote it into something of our own," Wilson told the Los Angeles Times of the incident in 2015.
When Berry accused Wilson of bogarting his melody, The Beach Boys’ manager, Wilson’s father Murray, gave Berry the copyright to the tune in order to avoid a lawsuit. He didn’t tell the members of the band, however, who supposedly only learned that they weren’t getting royalties from this song—and that Berry now received credit for writing it—about 25 years later.
Berry, for his part, reportedly enjoyed “Surfin’ USA.” And Wilson, according to the Los Angeles Times, never held a grudge. “He still regularly includes Berry songs in his live shows,” wrote Randy Lewis, “and has even slipped ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ lyrics into his live rendition of ‘Surfin' U.S.A.’”
Berry passed away yesterday, March 18, 2017, at the age of 90.