Chuck Berry – Maybellene

Chuck Berry was THE first guitar hero in Rock and Roll. He was also rock’s first poet. This song evolved out of “Ida Red,” a hillbilly song by Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys from the early ’50s. Berry heard that song on the Country radio station KMOX in St. Louis but didn’t know who recorded it.

Not only is the music great with the steady beat… but those lyrics. 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 half a mile ahead, the Cadillac lookin’ like it’s sittin’ still, and I caught Mabellene at the top of the hill

You can see what is happening in the song in your head with no problem… no MTV story video needed. He was one of the best descriptive lyricist rock and roll has ever had.

The song made it to #5 in the Billboard Pop Chart in 1955.

 

From Songfacts

Berry had never recorded, but when he went to Chicago to see Muddy Waters perform, he stayed in town to pitch himself to Leonard Chess of Chess Records, who asked him to come back the next week with some original songs. Berry returned with his bandmates Johnnie Johnson (piano) and Eddie Hardy (drums), and a demo reel with four songs, including “Ida Mae.” That’s the one Leonard Chess liked best, but he asked Berry to change so there wouldn’t be any confusion with “Ida Red” and to fend off any copyright claims. Berry changed the lyrics, turning it into a song about fast cars – one of his favorite topics. It was the first song the band recorded, and it proved a challenge: they recorded 36 takes.

This song tells the story of a girl who keeps cheating on her man. Various cars appear in the lyrics; Berry sings about chasing Maybellene in his V8 Ford while she drag races a man in a Cadillac with her Coupe de Ville.

There are a few different stories floating around about how the song got its name. Berry has said that Maybellene was the name of a cow in child’s nursery rhyme, but Johnnie Johnson recalled that there was a box of Maybellene mascara in the office, which gave Leonard Chess the idea for the title.

Chess Records gave the disc jockey Alan Freed a cowriting credit on this song (and also some cash) in exchange for playing it on the radio. Deals like this led to the Payola scandals, which led to rules prohibiting record companies from paying DJs to play their songs. Marshall Chess, the son of Chess founder Leonard Chess, recalled to The Independent newspaper May 27, 2008: “He [Freed] played the hell out of Chuck’s first record, ‘Maybellene’, because of that. My father says he made the deal, and by the time he got to Pittsburgh, which was half a day’s drive away, my uncle back at home was screaming, ‘What’s happening? We’re getting all these calls for thousands of records!'”

Deals like this were perfectly legal and fairly common at the time, but when the government took action in 1959, Freed refused to admit to taking Payola, insisting he was acting as a consultant to the music industry. Holding steadfast to this position, the radio and TV stations he worked for fired him, and his career never recovered. In contrast, Dick Clark admitted to taking cash and gifts, and simply stopped doing so when it was declared illegal. He was able to grow his media empire considerably after the scandal.

Berry was 29 years old when he recorded this song, but he knew that his audience was teenagers, so he wrote the song to appeal to that crowd – the ones fascinated with cars and experiencing young love. Berry also took care to sing it as clearly as possible so it would have more crossover appeal with a white audience. His strategy worked: the song went to #1 on the R&B chart and also made #5 on the Pop chart.

Chuck Berry was a rock and roll original, but he didn’t consider this a rock song. Said Berry: “‘Maybellene’ was very much a country song, with country lyrics. Maybe a little faster but basically it was country.”

Soon after this was released, Elvis Presley started performing it at some of his live appearances. Many other artists also recognized its propulsive appeal and covered the song. British acts – notably The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – often recorded Berry’s songs, but the UK act that grabbed this one was Gerry and the Pacemakers, who included it on their 1963 debut album How Do You Like It?

Other artists to cover the song include George Jones, The Searchers, Jerry Lee Lewis and Foghat.

The B-Side of the single was a slow blues song called “Wee Wee Hours.”

One-third of the composing credit went to Russ Fratto for the sole purpose of making sure that Berry got more royalties than Alan Freed (Fratto was a local DJ who was a close friend of Berry’s). He agreed to give Berry his share. In those days, it was common to give Freed a composer credit in exchange for airplay on his show. Freed would get royalties, and the song would become a hit.

A version by Johnny Rivers reached #12 in the US in 1964.

Later in 1955, Fats Domino released his own song with a three-syllable girl in the title: “I Can’t Go On (Rosalie).”

Berry died in 2017, the same year Fats Domino passed away. Jon Batiste and Gary Clark, Jr. paid tribute at the Grammy Awards in 2018 by performing “Maybellene” and “Ain’t That A Shame.”

 

Maybellene

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

As I was motivatin’ over the hill
I saw Mabellene in a Coup de Ville
A Cadillac arollin’ on the open road
Nothin’ will outrun my V8 Ford
The Cadillac doin’ about 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 doin’ 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 cloudy and started to rain
I tooted my horn for a passin’ lane
The rainwater blowin’ all under my hood
I know that I was doin’ my motor good
Maybellene
Why can’t you be true
Oh Maybellene, why can’t you be true
You’ve started back doin’ the things you used to do

Oh, Maybellene
Why can’t you be true
Oh Maybellene, why can’t you be true
You’ve started back doin’ 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 half a mile ahead The Cadillac lookin’ like it’s sittin’ still
And I caught Mabellene 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 doin’ the things you used to do

Author: badfinger20

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

13 thoughts on “Chuck Berry – Maybellene”

  1. Gah. Love Chuck Berry music. He set the stage & others followed.

    I had to correct stupid History Channel on Dick Clark’s Payola testimony. I was gonna do a post about it & they FUBARED the date. He stepped up, said he was wrong, stopped doing it & flew thru it. Others were not so lucky. It could have gone badly for Clark if he had shown any arrogance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yea Alan Freed made a lot of money…I didn’t know he got writing credit also…I thought he only got money for playing it.
      On the other hand…he did help the music but geez

      Liked by 1 person

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