500 Greatest Songs of All Time

18

Chuck Berry, 'Maybellene'

Writer: Berry
Producers: Leonard and Phil Chess
Released: July '55, Chess
11 weeks; No. 5

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.

Appears on: The Anthology (Chess) 

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