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

Favorite Lines from Songs Part 2

I did Part 1 over a year ago and it was a fun post. I’ve been meaning to do this again. I remembered some of the lyrics suggested by my friends hanspostcard and allthingsthriller on the last post…I have added those to list. Thanks to both of you.

I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back, And started walkin toward a coffee colored Cadillac… Chuck Berry

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Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose, And nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free Janis Joplin/Kris Kristofferson

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And I need you more than want you, And I want you for all time Jimmy Webb

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Doesn’t have a point of view / Knows not where he’s going to / Isn’t he a bit like you and me…The Beatles

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Met myself a coming county welfare line, I was feeling strung out, Hung out on the line…Creedence Clearwater Revival

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And you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above…Bruce Springsteen

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He’d end up blowing all his wages for the week / All for a cuddle and a peck on the cheek…Kinks

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Well it’s too late, tonight, To drag the past out into the light, We’re one, but we’re not the same, We get to carry each other, Carry each other…U2

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You can blow out a candle but you can’t blow out a firePeter Gabriel

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Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see…The Beatles

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Where you drink champagne and it tastes just like cherry cola, C-O-L-A Cola…Kinks

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It was gravity which pulled us down and destiny which broke us apart…Bob Dylan
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A drunkard’s dream if I ever did see oneThe Band

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And the sign said, The words of the prophets, are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls… Simon and Garfunkel

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I lit up from Reno, I was trailed by twenty hounds, Didn’t get to sleep that night
Till the morning came around…Grateful Dead

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When I said that I was lying, I might have been lyingElvis Costello
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Though nothing will keep us together/We can be heroes/Just for one day…David Bowie
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Lose your dreams and you. Will lose your mind…Rolling Stones

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It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win…Bruce Springsteen

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The motor cooled down, the heat went down, and that’s when I heard that highway sound…Chuck Berry

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We were the first band to vomit at the bar, and find the distance to the stage too far…The Who

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Elvis Presley – Promised Land

I had a hard time deciding which version to use…Chuck Berry’s who wrote the song or the Elvis version. This is the version I know the best. The many reasons I really like this version is the clavinet and Ron Tutt’s drumming…and of course, that guy named Elvis does a good job. He also did a really good job on the charts. Altogether he had 109 songs in the Billboard 100, 25 top ten hits and 7 number 1 hits.

I heard this song a lot growing up along with his other hits.

Promised Land peaked at #14 in the Billboard 100 and #9 in the UK Charts. Chuck Berry wrote this when he was serving time in jail for violating the Mann Act. He had to borrow an atlas of the US from the prison library to plot his hero’s journey from Virginia to California.

 

Promised Land

I left my home in Norfolk Virginia
California on my mind
I Straddled that Greyhound,
and rolled in into Raleigh and all across Carolina

Stopped in Charlotte and bypassed Rock Hill
And we never was a minute late
We was ninety miles out of Atlanta by sundown
Rollin’ out of Georgia state

We had motor trouble it turned into a struggle,
Half way ‘cross Alabam
And that ‘hound broke down and left us all stranded
In downtown Birmingham

Right away, I bought me a through train ticket
Ridin’ cross Mississippi clean
And I was on that midnight flier out of Birmingham
Smoking into New Orleans

Somebody help me get out of Louisiana
Just help me get to Houston town
There are people there who care a little ’bout me
And they won’t let the poor boy down

Sure as you’re born, they bought me a silk suit
Put luggage in my hands,
And I woke up high over Albuquerque
On a jet to the promised land

Workin’ on a T-bone steak a la carte
Flying over to the Golden State
Oh when The pilot told me in thirteen minutes
We’d be headin’ in the terminal gate

Swing low chariot, come down easy
Taxi to the terminal zone
Cut your engines, cool your wings
And let me make it to the telephone

Los Angeles give me Norfolk Virginia
Tidewater four ten O nine
Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’
And the poor boy’s on the line

My Favorite Songwriters

This one was the most fun to do. These are the songwriters that I have listened to and admired the most.

 

1… Bob Dylan – There was no one else I could remotely place as number 1.

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2… Lennon – McCartney – As a team…it was quantity and quality. Their music will live long after we are gone.

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3…Chuck Berry – He wrote the blueprint for future rockers.

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4…Jagger – Richards – For blues rock it doesn’t get much better than these two.

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5…Paul Simon – One of the best craftsman of pop songs there is…

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6…Bruce Springsteen – One of the best writers of his generation.

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7…Goffin and King – Wrote some of the best known and successful songs of the sixties.

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8…Smokey Robinson – Bob Dylan said of Robinson…”America’s greatest living poet”

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9…Pete Townshend – Took the “Rock Opera” to new levels.

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10…Hank Williams – The country poet.

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Honorable Mention

Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ray Davis, Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt, Leiber and Stoller, Elvis Costello, Randy Newman, Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, Robbie Robertson, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Tom Petty, Curtis Mayfield, John Prine, George Harrison, Steve Wonder, Warren Zevon, Brian Wilson

My Favorite Guitarists

Here are some of my favorite guitarists. Being fast is not something I care about… I’ve always liked guitarists who play with feel more than finger tapping.

 

Roger McGuinn, Byrds – He will not rip off lightning licks but he plays the Rickenbacker 12 string like no one else. I like the tone and his understated style.

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Neil Young – This may seem like an odd choice but when Neil plays the electric guitar…anything that can happen will. He plays by feel and feedback and God bless him for that.

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Brian May, Queen– You can hum his solos. One of the most melodic lead guitar players I’ve ever heard.

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Pete Townsend, Who – The king of the power chord. Pete does not have blinding speed but every note he plays is for a purpose.

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Keith Richards, Stones – The Human Riff… When Keith found G tuning the Stones sound changed forever and it may have been the key to their longevity.

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George Harrison, Beatles – After the Beatles, he reinvented himself into a great slide guitar player. Guitar players are still trying to find that tone. He had a great touch and taste in whatever he played.

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Buddy Guy – For electric blues and the tone he gets Buddy Guy is the man. Below is a picture of Buddy at the Festival Express playing a great version of Money.

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Jimi Hendrix – Like Keith Moon…many musicians have tried to copy him but none have. It is controlled chaos but I like it.

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Chuck Berry – Rock and roll owes a lot to him…he has been copied more than anyone.

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Scotty Moore, Elvis – The guitar player backing Elvis on his great 50s hits. Keith Richards said of Moore… Everyone else wanted to be Elvis, I wanted to be Scotty.

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Also

Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Peter Green, Lindsey Buckingham, BB King, Joe Walsh, Jimmy Page

 

 

 

 

 

Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll 1987

This documentary starts off in 1986 with Chuck Berry reminiscing about the Cosmopolitan Club where he played in the earlier days.

The film is centered around Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday and Keith Richards assembling an All-Star Band to support Chuck in concert. Chuck had been touring since the 60s by traveling town to town and playing with any pickup band he found…all he brought was his guitar. He would get paid with cash in a paper bag in many places. That was his motivation more than playing with a good band. Chuck could be very sloppy playing live.

Chuck could also be difficult, to say the least. Keith was determined that Chuck was going to be backed by a great band for this concert… Chuck was Keith’s idol but Chuck seemed to want to give Keith as much trouble as possible. Richards says in the documentary that Chuck was the only man that hit him that he didn’t hit back. During the rehearsals for the song “Carol”, you can feel the tension in the air between the two.

Seeing Keith’s reaction to Chuck at times is worth the price of admission and I’m glad Keith was persistent and patient and got this done. It’s great footage of Chuck playing his classics.

The concert at the Fox Theatre ended up a success. Chuck sounded great and so did the band.

During the documentary, there are some great comments by Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Bruce Springsteen, Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Dixon and more.

Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and Chuck have a very interesting conversation about how hard it was to get played on the radio because of being African American in the 50s. They also talk about payola and Alan Freed.

The band was incredible… Keith Richards, Robert Cray, the great Johnnie Johnson (Chuck’s original piano player), Steve Jordan, Bobby Keys, Chuck Leavell and Eric Clapton guests on a few songs.

Some of the artists that came on and sang were Etta James, Linda Ronstadt, and Julian Lennon.

Chuck was a complicated man but he was a poet as well. I can’t recommend this documentary enough. If you are a music fan you should like it. Chuck Berry may have influenced Rock and Roll more than anyone else…

My favorite story is from Bruce Springsteen. Bruce and the E Street Band volunteered to back up Chuck Berry for a show in the early seventies. Being Chuck’s temporarily pickup band must have been nerve-wracking for musicians. Chuck didn’t tell them what songs he was playing or what key…this is Bruce’s quote “About five minutes before the show was timed to start, the back door opens and he comes in. He’s by himself. He’s got a guitar case, and that was it,” Springsteen said. “[I said] ‘Chuck, what songs are we going to do?’ He says, ‘Well, we’re going to do some Chuck Berry songs.’ That was all he said!”

Below is the video…not extremely clear but watchable.