Lots of songs make references to lists of cities and states: Tupac did it, and so did…oops! The Beach Boys, in their 1963 reimagining of Berry's song.
"Sweet Little Sixteen" is all about teenage fan culture, taking us from Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, to Texas, San Francisco, St. Louis, and New Orleans. It's a cross-country tour with groupies.
To the tune of "Sweet Little Sixteen," the Beach Boys take us from Del Mar, California, to La Jolla, California, to Los Angeles California, to…Narrabeen, New South Wales (that's Australia). Manhattan is the logical follow-up to a surfing trip in New South Wales (actually, we didn't think there was surfing in Manhattan, but what do we know?), and then we're back in Pacific Palisades, Redondo Beach, Santa Cruz, and Ventura (all in California, if you must know). Manhattan aside, the Beach Boys might have been onto something: who needs a cross-country tour when many consider California great enough to be a country of its own?
Chuck Berry has said that he sings about what his fans care about, not his own personal story. In the late 1950s—before the dawn of Beatlemania, but in the thick of Elvismania—fan culture itself was the next big thing.
This line is a great example of Chuck's knack for writing to his fan base. It's pretty unlikely that Chuck Berry's wallet was full of little pictures of celebrities. But one of the ways he reached his multi-racial audience of screaming teen groupies was to sing about what they cared about, and what they cared about was, well, being groupies.
Technology played a role in the new forms of fan culture Berry sang about. Television and a new form of mass culture meant that the faces and lives of celebrities were literally inside the homes of fans in a way people had never seen before. Like Lady Gaga riffing on cell phone culture in 2010, Chuck Berry riffing on mass-media driven groupie culture was a sign of the times.
In addition to fan culture, Berry's songs often featured the undying theme of teen rebellion.
Teen rebellion has existed in every generation, but in the 1950s, the heyday of the suburbs met the dawn of the civil rights movement. Rock n' roll was born, and even sheltered white kids in Anytown, USA, watched Chuck Berry, Elvis and Little Richard getting famous on TV. These new stars sang a sort of music that had been pushed out of the mainstream as "black music" before, and they danced in ways that freaked out more than a few parents (remember, we are talking about people who were raised during prohibition).
There's a lot to say about the idea of teenage rebellion in this era, but possibly nothing says it better than the classic play-turned-film on teenage resistance and racial equality: Hairspray.
Chuck Berry was rockin' on bandstands all over the country—most notably his own "Berry's Club Bandstand," the first racially integrated bandstand in Missouri.
Chuck's bandstand started as a venue for his fans to hang out, but quickly became a center for partying and music. When they started throwing dances and shows for interracial audiences in 1958, the Bandstand received unwelcome attention from St. Louis police bothered by the idea of black and white youngsters mingling in one social space. Berry, who did the bartending at the bandstand himself, closed the joint in 1960 to focus his energies on "Berry Park," conceived as a racially integrated country club (read more about Berry's hangouts here). The park was less vulnerable to harassment as it was more private and did not draw as many teens—probably best for Berry, too, because in 1959 he was arrested on charges related to a teenage girl who worked at Berry's Club Bandstand.