Chuck Berry: 20 Essential Songs

"Johnny B. Goode," "Roll Over Beethoven" and other masterpieces that laid the groundwork for rock & roll as we know it

"Maybellene" (1955)

Rock & roll guitar starts here. The pileup of hillbilly country, urban blues and hot jazz in Chuck Berry's electric twang is the primal language of pop-music guitar, and it's all perfected on his first single. The entire song is a two-minute chase scene packed with car-culture vernacular and Berry's hipster-lingo inventions ("As I was motorvatin' over the hill ..."). Its groove comes from "Ida Red," a 1938 recording by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (of a song that dates back to the 19th century). By the time of the May 21st, 1955, session, Berry had been playing country tunes for black audiences for a few years – "After they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff," he has said. Leonard Chess came up with the title, inspired by a Maybelline mascara box lying on the floor at the Chess studio. DJ Alan Freed had nothing to do with writing "Maybellene," although he got co-credit and royalties for years in return for radio airplay: payola in all but name.