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Chuck Berry: Pioneer Of Rock Music And Plagiarism Lawsuits

Pop music pioneer Chuck Berry - who turns 90 today - is synonymous with two things: some of rock's early hits and some of rock's earliest cases of plagiarism. Berry's name is practically a byword for musicians whose music has been borrowed by their peers.

When discussing plagiarism with Rolling Stone in 2006, Tom Petty said, "The truth is...a lot of rock & roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry."

And the people borrowing the rock hall-of-famer's material aren't just small-bit groups hoping to make it big. They include some big names. Here are a few tracks that have been accused of ripping off Chuck Berry.

1. The Flying Saucer

Unlike other artists that have borrowed from their peers, the comic duo Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman didn't deny that they cherry picked from hit songs to record "The Flying Saucer." The 1956 novelty single narrated a "War of the Worlds" type invasion by using samples from hit songs to tell the story. One of those tunes was Berry's "Maybeline" which begins the recording.

Listeners loved the joke recording so much that it rose to #3 in the Billboard charts that year. But the music publishers who had stakes in those hits weren't amused. They took Buchanan and Goodman to court for copyright infringement in 1956. Ultimately, they lost the case because a district court judge ruled that the novelty song didn't pose a threat to the market for the tracks that were sampled.


2. Surfin' USA

Did you know that Chuck Berry collaborated with the Beach Boys? Well, he sorta did. Berry is credited as the co-author of "Surfin' USA" because of a lawsuit that his publisher won against the California rock band, whose breakout hit plagiarized Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen". So technically speaking, Chuck Berry is the black Beach Boy.

Despite the legal wrangling, the plagiarism case is just water under the bridge now. According to Beach Boy Carl Wilson, Berry said he loved "Surfin' USA" when he chatted with the band years later in Copenhagen. Of course, who wouldn't love a song that brought in royalties like that surf rock hit?  


3. Come Together

When music fans debate who should be considered the Fifth Beatle, they argue over people like Beatles manager Brian Epstein, producer George Martin or keyboardist Billy Preston. But if you want to impress pop culture buffs, throw Chuck Berry's name into the ring the next time the subject comes up.

According to John Lennon, Berry's hit "You Can't Catch Me" was the inspiration for The Beatles "Come Together." But some thought it was outright plagiarism.

"'Come Together' is me, writing obscurely around an old Chuck Berry thing," Lennon told journalist David Sheff in 1980. The former Beatle also admitted that he stole one lyric from the source material. "I left the line in, 'Here comes old flat-top'. It is nothing like the Chuck Berry song, but they took me to court because I admitted the influence once years ago. I could have changed it to 'Here comes old iron face,' but the song remains independent of Chuck Berry or anybody else on Earth."

The situation led to a lawsuit that Lennon settled out of court by agreeing to cover three songs owned by Berry's music publisher. Fittingly, one of those covers was "You Can't Catch Me."


4. Johnny B. Goode

In a bizarre turn of events, Berry was kinda sorta accused of plagiarizing his hit "Johnny B. Goode" from fictional time traveller Marty McFly. In the sci-fi blockbuster Back to the Future, Berry is inspired to write "Johnny B. Goode" after hearing McFly (Michael J. Fox) play it during the film's finale. We're not sure if the writers knew about the lawsuits involving Berry's music, but the joke seems almost cruel given the context. 


5. Chuck

The list of ripoffs might keep growing because Berry is set to release his first new album in 38 years. Berry chose his 90th birthday to announce that the new album - titled "Chuck" - will be released in 2017. Hopefully it won't be followed up by a new batch of lawsuits.

chuck berry

Chuck Berry was one of the recipients of the first annual Pen Awards for songwriting excellence in Boston, February 26, 2012. (Protest Photos1 / Flickr)

Banner Image: Chuck Berry photographed by Irving Williamson in 1965. (Missouri History Museum / Flickr) 


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