Saturday, August 20, 2005

50 years ago: Chuck Berry “Maybellene” hit #1 on R&B chart for 1st of 11 weeks


Chuck Berry

Writer(s): Chuck Berry, Russ Fratto, Alan Freed (see lyrics here)

Released: July 1955

First Charted: August 6, 1955

Peak: 5 US, 5 CB, 4 HR, 111 RB, 3 DF (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): 1.0 US

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 8.38 video, -- streaming


Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

Boogie pianist Johnnie Johnson had a gig booked for New Year’s Eve 1952 to play the Cosmopolitan Club in St. Louis. TC When a band member had a stroke, AH he called “untried guitarist Chuck Berry as a stopgap replacement.” TB He barely knew the young man who had “already served a term in prison for armed robberty, was massively ambitious, and was skinny as a rake” AH but he knew Berry could sing and play guitar.

That night Berry played the “uptempo country tune” SS “Ida Red” “about a duel between a Ford and a Cadillac.” TC It had been recorded by Roy Acuff, Bob Wills, and Cowboy Copas SS but, according to Okeh Records where Acuff cut the song, it was as “old as the hills.” DM Johnson said “the audience went crazy. We had to play that song again, maybe two or three times.” TB Some experts have called it the beginning of rock and roll. TB

Why? “This particular black man playing country music was more or less the embodiment of rock and roll.” AH By 1955, Berry went to Chicago to see blues great Muddy Waters who encouraged Berry to talk to Leonard Chess about a recording contract. SS At the first session, Berry recorded a reworked version of “Ida Red,” also incopraiting parts of “Oh Red” by the Harlem Hamfats and “Hot Rod Racer” by Arkie Shibley & His Mountain Dew Boys. The “new” song was called “Maybellene,” after the cosmetics company, at Chess’ suggestion. AH It “was the debut of the single most important songwriter in rock and roll history.” AH

It took 36 takes to record SS the “frustrated love song that’s as much about the highway as it is about girls.” DM The “rapid-fire wordplay…that became a Berry trademark is as exciting as its driving rhythm, generationg an unstoppable momentum, hurtling down the open road much like the Caddy and V-8 Ford in this song.” SS

It would be “the most important single record Chess ever put out” AH and “when it comes to rock and roll, Chuck Berry may be the single most important figure who ever lived.” AH To get the song played on the radio, Chess engaged in payola, which meant he gave DJ Alan Freed and his associate Russ Fratto two-thirds of the publishing income and songwriting credit. TC It became a hit, “kick-starting the rock ‘n’ roll revolution.” TB


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First posted 3/24/2023; last updated 3/31/2023.

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