Story of the Song: ‘Maybellene’ by Chuck Berry

From The Independent archive: Robet Webb on ‘Maybellene’ by Chuck Berry

Saturday 11 September 2021 00:39
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<p>It was adapted from a Thirties western swing tune, ‘Ida Red’</p>

It was adapted from a Thirties western swing tune, ‘Ida Red’

According to the painter Paul Gauguin, art is either plagiarism or revolution. Sadly, Gauguin wasn't around to hear Chuck Berry, who, with “Maybellene”, excelled at both. In the mid-Fifties, Berry had a residency at East St Louis's Cosmopolitan Club. A favourite with his – mainly white – audience was an old fiddle tune, “Ida Red”, with origins in the Civil War. The version Berry had grown up with was a square dance, cut in 1938 by the king of western swing, Bob Wills. Wills, in turn, had borrowed some of his lines from a Victorian ballad, “The Parlour Is a Pleasant Place to Sit on Sunday Night”.

The St Louis clubgoers cared little for the provenance of the cowboy numbers they heard. That allowed Berry to improvise around the melodies and concoct his own stories. Gradually, “Ida Red” became a Berry composition, “Ida May”, a teen tale of a two-timing girl and a chase, between a Cadillac and a V8 Ford. In 1955, on a recommendation from Muddy Waters, Berry signed with Chicago's premier R&B label, Chess. He thought it would leap on his blues material, but, to his surprise, it was “Ida May” that had the proprietor, Leonard Chess, reaching for a blank contract. The label was looking to cross over to the white market, and Berry was the artist to do it.

With the blues legend Willie Dixon on upright bass and the pianist, Johnnie Johnson, Berry and his guitar set off to record “Ida May”. There was just one problem: it was still too close to “Ida Red”. “I changed the music and rearranged it,” Johnson says. “Chuck rewrote the words.” The hillbilly two-step was converted into bristling, early rock'n'roll. The title, with a little adjustment to the spelling, was settled when, according to Johnson, someone noticed the cosmetic Maybelline in the room.

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