Rock Music Wiki

"Maybellene" is a song recorded by Chuck Berry, adapted from the traditional fiddle tune "Ida Red" that tells the story of a hot rod race and a broken romance. It was released in July 1955 as a single on Chess Records of Chicago, Illinois.[1] It was Berry's first single release and his first hit. "Maybellene" is considered one of the pioneering rock and roll singles: Rolling Stonemagazine wrote, "Rock & roll guitar starts here."[2] The record is an early instance of the complete rock and roll package: youthful subject matter, small guitar-driven combo, clear diction, and an atmosphere of unrelenting excitement.

The song was a major hit among both black and white audiences and it was quickly covered by several other artists after its initial release. The song has received numerous honors and awards throughout the years.

The song is misspelled "Maybelline" on several releases.

Origins and writing of the song[edit source | editbeta][]

"Maybellene" has been described as an adaptation of the country song "Ida Red".[3] According to Berry, his favorite song to sing at integrated clubs (“salt and pepper clubs”, as he called them) was the country song "Ida Red", an uptempo dance number made popular by Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys with their 1938 recording. Encouraged by Muddy Waters, Berry in 1955 brought to Chess Records a recording of his cover version of Willis's tune which he had renamed "Ida May" and a blues song he wrote “Wee Wee Hours”, which he stated was inspired by Joe Turner’s “Wee Baby Blue”.[4] To Berry’s surprise, Leonard Chess showed little interest in the blues material but was enthusiastic about the commercial possibilities in a “hillbilly song sung by a black man”.[4] Chess wanted a bigger beat for the song and added a bass and maracas player to the trio at the recording session. He also felt the titles “Ida Red” and “Ida May” were “too rural”.[4] Spotting a mascara box on the floor of the studio, according to Berry’s partner Johnnie Johnson, Chess said, “Well, hell, let’s name the damn thing Maybellene” altering the spelling to avoid a suit by the cosmetic company. The lyrics were rewritten at the direction of Chess as well. “The kids wanted the big beat, cars, and young love,” Chess recalled. “It was the trend and we jumped on it.”[4] It has been claimed that taking old recordings and modifying them, by changing the instrumentals and the lyrics was a common practice in the 1950s. With these changes the original songs were often not detectable particularly if the melody was slightly modified. This practice took place because copyright laws on older recordings were rarely enforced.

As Chess had predicted, the lyrics struck a chord with teenagers fascinated by cars, speed, and sexuality. "Maybellene” became one of the first records to score big on rhythm and blues, country and western, and pop charts. Featuring some inimitable Chuck Berry riffs, some blues-style picking on a country guitar, and Johnson’s piano, which added a hummable rhythm to the steady backbeat, "Maybellene" was a pivotal song in the emergence of rock 'n' roll. This exciting fusion of a rhythm and blues beat with a rural country style was the catalyst for the type of rock 'n' roll that emerged in the mid-1950s.[5] "

Co-composers[edit source | editbeta][]

In the 1950s, some record companies assigned co-composer credits to disc jockeys and others who helped "break" a record, a form of "payola" via composer royalties. This accounts for disk jockey Alan Freed receiving co-writer credit for "Maybellene". Russ Fratto, who had been lending money to Chess, also received credit.[6] The Freed and Fratto credits were later withdrawn.

Charts[edit source | editbeta][]

In 1955, the song, a 12-bar blues, peaked at number five on the Billboard rock/pop charts and was a number one R&B hit.[7] Billboard's year end charts ranked "Maybellene" as #3 on 1955's Top R&B Records Retail Sales and the Juke Box Plays charts.[8]

The song sold one million copies by the end of 1955.[9]

Honors and awards[edit source | editbeta][]

In 1988 "Maybellene" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for its influence as a rock and roll single.[10] The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included "Maybellene" in their list of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll list, as well as "Rock and Roll Music" and "Johnny B. Goode".[11] In 1999, National Public Radio included it in the "NPR 100," the one hundred most important American musical works of the 20th century as chosen by NPR music editors.[12]"Maybellene" is currently ranked as the 81st greatest song of all time, as well as the second best song of 1955, by Acclaimed Music.[13]

Cover versions[edit source | editbeta][]

Columbia records released a version by Marty Robbins (21351) by the end of August 1955.[14] Robbins' version was the #13 "Most Played by Jockeys" in the Country & Western market by mid October.[15] and soon Columbia was touting it as one of its "Best Selling Folk Records".[16] By November it was noted that the record had "won considerable pop play".[17] Other versions available in mid October 1955 were by J. Long (Coral 61478), J. Lowe (Dot 15407) and R. Marterie (Mercury 70682) with the song listed as #14 top selling in the nation.[18]

Allmusic lists cover versions by more than 70 performers, including Elvis PresleySimon and Garfunkel in a medley with "Kodachrome"George JonesCarl PerkinsBubba SparksFoghatGerry & The PacemakersJohnny Rivers, andChubby Checker.[19]

In 1955, the Brownie McGhee Sextet recorded "Anna Mae" which was a double-time rewrite of "Maybellene". It can be found on the four-disc compilation "Stompin' at the Savoy: The Original Indie-Label 1944-1961."

"Maybellene" is Steve Howe's first released single (1964) with his band The Syndicats.

In 1964 Johnny Rivers version of "Maybellene" reached #12 on the Billboard Hot 100[20] and #9 on RPM magazine's Top 40-5s Singles chart.[21]

In 1972, Foghat recorded a cover of the song.

In June 2007, the punk rock group Social Distortion released a cover version of the song as a bonus track on their Greatest Hits album. The track is only available via the Apple iTunes Store.

In 2008, American rapper Mos Def recorded his version for the movie Cadillac Records based on the rise and fall of Chess Records. The song was released on the soundtrack Cadillac Records: Music from the Motion Picture the following year.

In 2011, blues guitarist/singer Johnny Winter recorded a cover of the song on his album Roots, featuring Vince Gill on guitar.