Credit: Pickwick Records

The Story Behind The Song: Chuck Berry’s ‘Maybellene’ a hot rod romance

Noted as one of the first rock and roll songs of all time, Chuck Berry’s iconic tune ‘Maybellene’ was recorded on this day in 1955. It still stands the test of time as a fire-breathing party starter, but what is at the heart of this dancefloor ditty?

We’re taking a look at ‘The Story Behind The Song’ of Chuck Berry’s now famed number which, as well as being the archetypal rock and roll tune, acted as a unifying moment in integrated clubs and the hope of more peaceful times. Precisely because that’s exactly what Chuck Berry and Chess Records intended it to be.

Ten years on from the horrors of World War 2 and the world was beginning to heal itself, in fact, America was enjoying an unprecedented economic boom. It left the kids of America with a few extra nickels in their pocket, money they would happily put towards a new record. The perfect opportunity arose with the rise of integrated clubs that allowed black and white audiences to mix and opened up, not only a larger market for people like Leonard Chess, but the chance at a brief window of unity.

Berry had been playing integrated—or “salt and pepper” as he called them—clubs for some time when he noticed that his particularly bouncing version of Bob Wills’ Western Swing song ‘Ida Red’ was getting audiences up on their feet and dancing together. It encouraged him to record a version of the track which he renamed ‘Ida May’.

Moving forward it would take a little more encouragement from a certain Muddy Waters for Berry to bring the song to anyone’s attention though. Eventually, after pressure from Waters, Berry took ‘Ida May’ and a blues song ‘Wee Wee Hours’, which Berry had written, taking inspiration from Big Joe Turner’s ‘Wee Baby Blue’. Berry was confident that the blues number would “fit” Berry’s career and that this is where Leonard Chess, the head of Chess Records, would put his faith.

He was, of course, completely wrong. Chess was uninterested in ‘Wee Wee Hours’ and instead was captivated by the market opportunity of a “hillbilly song sung by a black man”. With the emergence of the newfound sociological term ‘teenager’ now coming complete with a blank cheque, every record producer in the business was trying to find something which had mass appeal. This fusion of genres was Chess’ shot.

From that moment on Berry and Chess worked extremely closely on the song. The pair were keen to change the name of the track after Chess described ‘Ida May’ and ‘Ida Red’ as “too rural”. The story goes that the team were knocking around ideas when, according to Berry’s pianist Johnny Johnson, Chess spotted an old mascara box on the floor and said: “Well, hell, let’s name the damn thing Maybellene”. They changed the spelling of the name to avoid a lawsuit and were soon in the studio.

To grab the attention of teenagers, Chess and Berry knew the song needed a big beat. On top of that, Chess was also confident that the track needed new lyrics. Back in 1955, there were only three things on a teenagers mind, a big beat, hot rod cars and teen lust. “The kids wanted the big beat, cars and young love,” Chess recalled. “It was the trend and we jumped on it.”

‘Maybellene’ was an instant smash and Chess’ changes were vindicated. It became one of the first records to be a hit on the rhythm and blues, country and western, and pop charts at the same time, highlighting it’s unifying properties.

Featuring some inimitable Chuck Berry riffs, the kind of riffs that would dictate guitar playing for decades, as well as some blues-style picking on a guitar and Johnson’s piano, which added a hummable rhythm to the steady backbeat, ‘Maybellene’ became a pivotal moment in rock and roll history. An exciting fusion of a rhythm-and-blues beat with a rural country style had become the catalyst of the rock and roll movement and a hint of more peaceful times.

Chuck Berry ‘Maybellene’ lyrics:

Maybellene, why can’t you be true?
Oh Maybellene, why can’t you be true?
You’ve started back doing the things you used to do.

As I was motivatin’ over the hill I saw
Maybellene in a coup de ville.
A Cadillac a-rollin’ on the open road,
Nothin’ will outrun my V8 Ford.
The Cadillac doin’ ’bout ninety-five,
She’s bumper to bumper rollin’ side by side.

Maybellene, why can’t you be true?
Oh Maybellene, why can’t you be true?
You’ve started back doing the things you used to do.

Pink in the mirror on top of the hill,
It’s just like swallowin’ up a medicine pill.
First thing I saw that Cadillac grille
Doin’ a hundred and ten gallopin’ over that hill.
Offhill curve, a downhill stretch,
Me and that Cadillac neck by neck.

Maybellene, why can’t you be true?
Oh Maybellene, why can’t you be true?
You’ve started back doing the things you used to do.

The Cadillac pulled up ahead of the Ford,
The Ford got hot and wouldn’t do no more.
It then got clody and it started to rain,
I tooted my horn for a passin’ lead
The rain water blowin’ all under my hood,
I knew that was doin’ my motor good.

Maybellene, why can’t you be true?
Oh Maybellene, why can’t you be true?
You’ve started back doing the things you used to do.

The motor cooled down, the heat went down
And that’s when I heard that highway sound.
The Cadillac a-sittin’ like a ton of lead
A hundred and ten a half a mile ahead.
The Cadillac lookin’ like it’s sittin’ still
And I caught Maybellene at the top of the hill.

Maybellene, why can’t you be true?
Oh Maybellene, why can’t you be true?
You’ve started back doing the things you used to do.

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