Brian Wilson on Chuck Berry: ‘He Taught Me How to Write Rock’
Brian Wilson was backstage Saturday night, waiting to perform at Indio, California’s Fantasy Springs Resort Casino for his Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour, when he heard that one of his idols, Chuck Berry, had died. “I was shocked by it and it kind of scared me,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I don’t know why it scared me, but it was just a shock.” On Sunday, he says he’s still taking the news “pretty rough.”
For Wilson, Berry was an important inspiration for some of the first music he wrote over half a century ago for the Beach Boys. “He taught me how to write rock & roll melodies, the way the vocals should go,” he says. “His lyrics were very, very good. They were unusually good lyrics. I liked ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ all about a young, little kid who played his guitar.
“He inspired me as a lyricist,” he says. “He made me want to write about cars and surfing. I liked the lyrics to ‘Roll Over Beethoven.’ It felt like what he was doing was new.”
Berry’s influence loomed especially large over “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” the Beach Boys’ 1963 single, which went to Number Three on the Billboard chart. As Wilson remembers it, he’d become so enamored with Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” that “the melody and the chord pattern inspired me to write ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’” When the single came out, it was credited only to Wilson. But within a few years, he shared the credit with Berry at Berry’s music publisher’s request. Wilson has said in recent years that he didn’t mind sharing credit, and late Beach Boys guitarist Carl Wilson once reported that Berry had told him that he “loves” “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
Moreover, the authorship issue never stopped the Beach Boys from performing Berry’s songs both live and in the studio in homage to their idol. “With the Beach Boys, we were inspired to do ‘Rock and Roll Music’ and ‘School Days’ because of his great melodies,” Wilson says. “His songs were very easy to do. We haven’t been singing any of his songs lately [with my solo band], but I want to do it soon. I’d like to do ‘Rock and Roll Music’ and ‘Johnny B. Goode.’”
Although the Beach Boys played a special with Chuck Berry in late 1964, captured on the concert film The T.A.M.I. Show, Wilson can recall talking to his inspiration only once on an airplane. While he couldn’t recall what they talked about, he remembered the way Berry was in front of an audience. “I just liked the way he moved around onstage,” he says.