Meaning of Maybellene by Chuck Berry & The Story Behind

In an article about the history of the song “Maybellene” one wants to use the word “first” often. It was the first studio experience for Chuck Berry, his first single and first hit, and the first really popular composition performed by a black musician. But the main thing is that she opened the world of the artist, about whom John Lennon later said: “If you wanted to think of another name for rock and roll, you could call him Chuck Berry.”

It all started when Chuck heard the traditional country song “Ida Red” performed by Bob Willis & The Texas Playboys on KMOX radio. Taking the track he liked as a basis, Berry composed a composition that he called “Ida Mae”. Let’s not rush to accusations of plagiarism, because at that time such a practice was widespread. He performed this song with the Johnnie Johnson Trio for some time in St. Louis.

In May 1955, Chuck traveled to Chicago to hear his idol Muddy Waters live. He later recalled:

And I listened to it throughout the performance. When he finished, I went up to him, asked for an autograph and told him that I play the guitar. “How to contact any record company?” He said, “Why don’t you see Leonard Chess over there at 47.”

The next morning, Chuck went to Chess Records and right on the street intercepted Chess, who was heading to the office. Tom liked the pressure of the young musician, and he invited Berry to return, taking a cassette with his songs. Chuck arrived within a week. With him were two other members of the Johnnie Johnson Trio and four taped compositions.

Unexpectedly for Berry, who was counting on his blues work, Leonard was interested in the track “Ida Mae”. Only now he did not like the name, which he found too “rustic”. According to pianist Johnny Johnson, the new version came about unexpectedly:

This became a problem, because no one could come up with a name. We looked at the windowsill and there was a box of mascara that said Maybelline. And Leonard said, “Shall we call this damn thing ‘Maybellene’?”

Chess deliberately changed one letter to avoid misunderstandings with a well-known cosmetics company. Chuck was not at all embarrassed by this proposal:

“Maybellene” had the same rhythm as “Ida Red”, like “da-dee-da”… I had the rhythm and someone else came up with the name… That’s how “Maybellene” came about.

Then, right in the studio, Chuck slightly altered the words, adding racing cars to the story of the unfaithful girl. According to the producer, this should have interested more young people.

After recording the song, Berry returned to his former life in St. Louis, which consisted of work, study and evening performances as part of the same trio. Week after week, still no news from Leonard. But one August afternoon, Chuck heard his composition on the radio:

I was just walking past the tailor shop that was making my prom jacket, and I was walking past it while the song was playing. I didn’t want anyone to see me listening to it, but I did listen to “Maybellene”. And when it was over, I passed the door of that place for the last time and rushed home, which was about twenty blocks away, to tell everyone: “I heard it, I heard it, I heard it, I heard me sing.” And there were relatives and people who lived in that quarter. Anyway, that’s how I heard it for the first time – on that day, a pleasant, sunny day, a beautiful day.

The single soon climbed to the top of the Billboard R&B charts and reached number five on the rock and pop charts. By the end of 1955, the record had sold over a million copies.

But in a huge barrel of honey there was an impressive fly in the ointment. It turned out that the co-authors of the song are DJ Allen Freed and Russ Fratto. Freed was honored (and paid) for actively helping promote the track, but Fratto had to be shared as he was Leonard Chess’s creditor. At first, dazed by success, Berry did not argue, but later decided to challenge the copyright in court. He managed to achieve justice only in the mid-eighties.

Shortly after the release of the single, Elvis Presley, then a novice performer, included the song in his repertoire. Later, the composition was sung and recorded by many famous musicians, including Jerry Lee Lewis, The Searches, Johnny Rivers and George Jones. According to Allmusic, there are over seventy official cover versions.

“Maybellene” is included in the famous top 500 according to the Rolling Stones and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She is also represented in several other authoritative ratings.

Interesting Facts

  • The first version of the song was recorded in the studio only on the thirty-sixth attempt.
  • It is said that Chuck Berry once admitted that Maybellene is, in fact, the nickname of a cow from a little-known nursery rhyme.
  • One evening, DJ Alan Freed played the song for two hours straight at New York’s WINS club.
  • Several early pressings of the single misspelled the title of the song as “Maybelline”.

Maybellene lyrics by Chuck Berry

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
Maybelline, why can’t you be faithful?
Oh Maybelline, why can’t you be true?
You went back to your old ways As I was motivatin’ over the hill
I saw Maybellene 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
I saw Maybelline in the Coup de Ville
The Cadillac that drove down the highway
But nothing beats my Ford V8
Cadillac hit 95
We drive bumper to bumper side by side 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 Cadillac got ahead of the Ford
Ford overheated and could not go further
Then it got cloudy and it started to rain
I blew the horn to passing cars
The rain was blown by the wind under the hood
I know it’s good for the motor The motor cooled down the heat went down
And that’s when I heard that highway sound
The Cadillac asittin’ like a ton of lead
A hundred and ten half a mile ahead
The Cadillac lookin’ like it’s sittin’ still
And I caught Maybellene at the top of the hill
That’s when I heard that sound on the highway
Cadillac sagging like a ton of lead
Drove under a hundred and ten half a mile ahead
He seemed to be motionless
And I saw Maybelline at the top of the hill

Song quote

“Maybellene” is still a country song with country lyrics. It might be a little faster, but overall it was country.

Chuck Berry

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