Rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry sang
about an autograph collector in "Sweet Little
Sixteen" and added a drawing of himself to this
By STEVE SEYMOUR
In "Sweet Little Sixteen," a No. 2 smash from early 1958, Chuck Berry sang about a girl who "had to have half a million famed autographs."
Nearly 20 years ago, my wife Sue and I took a cue from that song when we began to collect the signatures of rock 'n' roll's founders, including Chuck Berry, one of the genre's greatest artists. You'll recognize his hits: "Maybellene," "Johnny B. Goode," "Roll Over Beethoven," and so many more. He was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and was the subject of a concert film the following year.
Still, by 1989, many of rock's pioneers had faded from prominence, as the music and fans moved away from the sounds and personalities of the 1950s.
Thankfully, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was founded in the mid-1980s to preserve rock's early history, although the Cleveland museum was still years away.
Two decades ago was also before the Internet and eBay, so Sue and obtained autographs the old-fashioned way, by sending letters to our subjects in the mail.
We had purchased a book of celebrity addresses and dispatched our requests with a self-addressed stamped envelope. The enclosed letter requested an autographed picture which we promised to display on a "wall of fame" at our retail record store.
Less than a week later, we received a package from Paul Anka, who wrote and performed the 1957 chart-topping smash, "Diana." A long-time Las Vegas entertainer, with 50 pop hits to his name, Anka took the time to send us an autographed poster and 8 x 10 photograph. The picture was inscribed "My thanks always" and dated 3-89.
To our surprise, Sue and I found that dozens of our rock 'n' roll heroes were willing to send us signed photos to display.
Remember Johnny Tillotson? The Florida-based teen idol began recording in the 1950s and hit a career peak in 1960 with "Poetry in Motion." Tillotson sent a personally inscribed promo picture which he signed with the addition of "best wishes."
We were delighted to get Fats Domino's signature. His incredible string of hits includes "Ain't It a Shame," "Blueberry Hill" and "I'm Walkin'." The New Orleans-based musician was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In his photo, Domino is leaning over a piano. He signed "Luck always, Fats Domino."
Neil Sedaka, who made "Oh! Carol" a smash in 1959, and continued making hits for three more decades, answered our inquiry with an autographed photo and added "Cheers" to the inscription.
Fargo, North Dakota's Bobby Vee responded with a color photo which he inscribed to "Sue, with thanks, Bobby Vee." The pop singer may be best known for "Devil or Angel," "Take Good Care of My Baby," and "Run To Him," among many other hits.
Other early rock stars sent material, too.
Bobby Rydell, who struck gold in 1960 with "Wild One" and "Volare," was another early contributor to our collection. He signed his photo in red marker, adding "Sincerely" before his name. Rydell appeared at the Island Resort and Casino in Harris recently as part of the Golden Boys show, with Frankie Avalon and Lou Christie.
Bobby Vinton, who also played at the local casino this year, has his autographed picture on display. "Roses Are Red (My Love)" and "Blue Velvet," are among Vinton's memorable early hits.
The man who took "The Twist" to the top of the charts two different times, Chubby Checker, has also been responsive to his fans. He signed a photograph for us in 1989.
Brenda Lee, who's biggest hit came in 1960 with "I'm Sorry," signed a color portrait which highlighted her red hair. The pop singer was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 and enjoyed a hit-making career which lasted more than 25 years.
Some of the stars who sent us their autographs have since died.
Rockabilly star Carl Perkins, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, seemed especially thoughtful. The star who took "Blue Suede Shoes" to No. 2 in 1956, sent along a color photo and a light blue guitar pick. "God bless you. Your friend, Carl Perkins," wrote the Tipton, Tennessee native.
Sadly, Perkins died at the age of 65 on Jan. 19, 1998.
Bo Diddley was another early rock 'n' roll innovator who treated his fans well. Rhythm & blues fans should recognize Diddley's first hit. "Bo Diddley" backed with "I'm a Man" is one of rock's most important records, having influenced performers like Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.
Voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, Diddley signed his name in gold marker. Unfortunately, he died on June 8, 2008 aged 79.
Coopersville, Michigan native Del Shannon, who made "Runaway" a No. 1 hit in 1961, sent a photo which he autographed in red marker. He wrote: "Love ya and rock & roll."
Tragically, Shannon died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound just a few weeks later, on Feb. 8, 1990. The 55-year-old Shannon was taking anti-depressant drugs at the time. He was added to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.
Some music celebrities were more cooperative than others in providing their "John Hancock."
We sent a letter to Jerry Lee Lewis, famous for "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," "Great Balls of Fire," and "Breathless," asking for his autograph, and enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope.
Lewis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and was the subject of a 1989 movie, starring Dennis Quaid.
His wife responded to our request, telling us Lewis's signature would cost $15. We dispatched the money, but never got the autograph.
Although Sue and I started collecting autographs by mail, this method is no longer effective because some collectors began to take advantage of the celebrities by selling the items for profit on eBay.
But, we've still been able to add autographs by going to concerts, joining fan clubs, and trading with other collectors. We also pick-up pieces from autograph dealers and folks who promote records and concerts.
Over the years we've obtained autographs from rock, country and blues stars from all eras.
One of our prized "famed autographs" is from Chuck Berry, the man who wrote and sang so many important early rock standards. In the photo he autographed, he's depicted doing his famous "duck walk." Berry even added a small mustachioed drawing of himself. That's something he probably would have done for the signature-seeking fan in "Sweet Little Sixteen."