Sweet Little Sixteen
by Chuck Berry
Whether he wanted this status or not, it's true that Berry was the first rock n' roll outlaw, and one of rock's first big stars. "Sweet Little Sixteen," a song dedicated to fan culture and teenage dreams, is an ode to the idea of fame itself. It evokes images of bandstands and screaming girls, the stuff of the movie Hairspray and part of our current caricature of the 1950s. But after his time in prison and the decline of his status as a superstar, Berry's approach to fame became more and more eccentric over the years. By the 1970s, he was somewhat infamous for giving terrible live shows. He never traveled with a band, choosing to play with random pick-up bands in each new city he traveled to.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band randomly backed up Chuck Berry during that period, and the story he tells about it is pretty amazing. According to the Boss (who was not uber-famous just yet), he and the band nervously awaited Berry at a club. They waited and waited, and Chuck just didn't show up. The opening act went on, and still no sign of Berry (keep in mind that Springsteen had never met nor played with Berry, so this was a nerve-wracking situation at a minimum). About five minutes before the Berry set was supposed to start, he arrived in no particular hurry—alone, driving his own Cadillac and carrying nothing but a guitar case. The band rushed to meet him and try to get in a little rehearsal, but Berry bee-lined for the booking agent and disappeared into a backroom where he was apparently paid in cash (as he was for every show, even when he was getting paid tens of thousands of dollars). After getting his money, Berry cruised out to the backstage area, tuned his guitar, and met the band.
According to Springsteen, he and the band desperately tried to find out what they'd be playing, and what key they'd be playing in. Berry just said, "We'll be playing Chuck Berry songs." They rushed on stage and stumbled through a set, with Berry periodically turning to the band and saying "play for the money, boys!" Ironically, Springsteen and the E Street Band weren't getting paid. As he tells it, playing with Chuck Berry was one of the most terrifying performance experiences of his life.
So, that's Chuck Berry. Apparently all that generous payment in cash came back to haunt him, and he actually went back to prison for a few years in the late 1970s for tax evasion. But he was undeterred: though he did study accounting while in prison and start paying taxes, he still tours with nothing but a suitcase and a guitar, refusing to travel with an entourage and insisting on cash payment before his performances. We've already called him a penny-pincher a couple times, but that might be an understatement. Berry's approach to being a star could even be considered strangely stingy. No one really follows the Berry psychology, but it's a part of his calling card at this point to be an enigmatic star, protective of his expansive wealth and perhaps unaware of his own brilliance.