The Truth About The Beach Boys' Relationship With Chuck Berry

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," according to an old proverb quoted by Dictionary. What happens, though, when a musician takes things too far, when instead of simply being inspired by the work of a different artist, their own work is just a little too close for comfort to the original material? This very thing occurred in 1963, when publishers and legal representatives for Chuck Berry found the Beach Boys hit "Surfin' USA" to be a direct rip-off of their own client's song, "Sweet Little Sixteen," and decided to take action.

It would be impossible to find a pop musician in 1963 that wasn't inspired in some way by rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry. "Surfin' USA" wouldn't even be the first time the Boys borrowed from Berry. Such is the case with the Beach Boys single "Fun, Fun, Fun," and it's striking similarity to Chuck Berry's tune "Johnny B. Goode," according to PBS. Berry, himself, even took bits from earlier songs on loan, and certainly, bands like the Rolling Stones lifted riffs and passages from blues musicians. What was it, then, about "Surfin' USA" that made Chuck Berry draw the line?

They gave Chuck Berry publishing credit

Per Far Out Magazine, what Beach Boys primary songwriter Brian Wilson liked in particular about the song "Sweet Little Sixteen" is when Chuck Berry lists locations, name-dropping Boston, Frisco, Texas, and Pittsburgh, among many others. Thus inspired, Wilson worked a similar passage into his own song, "Surfin' USA," hoping to make a surf rock and California-specific equivalent. What was intended as a loving tribute, quickly resulted in a lawsuit.

Even though Chuck Berry was a fan of "Surfin' USA," Beach Boys' manager Murray Wilson (who was also Brian Wilson's father) was faced with a lawsuit from Berry's team. In response, Murray gave the copyright to Berry's publishing company, Arc Music, even though Berry was only given songwriting credit later on, in 1966. As a result, the Beach Boys received no royalties from one of their most successful songs, which the members of the band only found out about a quarter of a century after the initial lawsuit. The truth about the Beach Boys relationship to Chuck Berry, though, is that, despite the disagreement, they remain fans of the rock music innovator, continuing to cover his songs, and even including a live medley of "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Surfin' USA" into their sets (per Far Out Magazine).