On May 21, 1955, Chuck Berry was in Chicago, Illinois. Having been introduced to Leonard Chess, owner of Chess Records, by Muddy Waters, the St. Louis, MO based, singer, guitarist and songwriter was recording his first single.
1954 had seen popular releases by newcomers Bill Haley & His Comets [“(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock”] and Elvis Presley (“That’s All Right” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight”), records that merged hillbilly (country) music with rhythm & blues and introduced something that came to be known as rockabilly. The song on Chuck’s demo tape that caught Leonard’s ear was his remake of a 1938 Bob Wills song called “Ida Red”. It too merged these two musically and racially disparate styles into a new and very infectious sound.
But besides Bob Wills, an R&B artist named Bumble Bee Slim had put out a song also called “Ida Red” in 1950, so a name change was called for. Chuck went to work and the rewritten number was given the title “Maybellene”. The track was cut, in 36 takes, with Chuck on lead vocals and electric guitar (a Gibson ES-350T with P-90 single-coil pickups), Johnnie Johnson on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, Jerome Green on maracas and Ebby Hardy on drums.
In A Brief History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Nick Johnstone wrote: “Welding country and western guitar licks to a Chicago-influenced rhythm and blues beat while throwing over the top, cocky, rebellious, mischievous lyrics, packed with lusty innuendo and metaphor, Berry all but defined rock ‘n’ roll with “Maybellene.””
If you’ve never heard “Maybellene”, find it and listen to it (more than once.) If you have heard it, more than likely it has been awhile. So, listen to it again. “As I was motivatin’ over the hill..”
Three months after being recorded, “Maybellene” reached #5 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B chart.
Chuck B was one of the first black artists to successfully cross over to the mainstream charts, something that the other Chess artists, and of course black artists in general back then, rarely had the opportunity to do. Now if he could have just let those young women be….
Maybellene is such a great song. I’m curious tho’…. What are the statistics on Chuck’s version vs Johnny Rivers? They recorded the song about 10 years apart….
I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned it here before. Have you seen “Cadillac Records”? It’s the story of Chess Records and some of the artists that recorded for them, including Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Etta James. Certainly not Oscar winning performances, but it does give you a glimpse of what it may have been like.