This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #413: Maybellene by Chuck Berry.
One of the trends that has developed over the first 80+ songs on this list of all-time greats, is a recognition of performers who were pioneers in their genre. We have recently had Massive Attack and Afrika Bambaataa (Trip Hop and Hip Hop), we learned about DJ Shadow (the first to release an album entirely comprised of samples), we read about how Iggy Pop and the Stooges set the table for the Punk Movement that followed and, finally, we have listened to many of the early bands who started the New Wave/Alternative genre off such as The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen and so on. Today, we meet one of the biggest names of them all…Mr. Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry is rightly credited as being one of the architects of a musical sound that became known, simply as, Rock n’ Roll. His songs were filled with vivid descriptions of fast cars and sexual longing, powered by sizzling electric guitar work; all of which, were built upon a foundation of the Blues. Chuck Berry ushered in a sound that shattered the conventional music world as it existed in the 1950s and paved the way for singers like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard to follow. Chuck Berry had many, many hits including, “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Rock and Roll Music”, “Sweet Little Sixteen” and, of course, the granddaddy of them all, “Johnnie B. Goode” but, the one that knocked down the door and started everything off, was “Maybellene”.
“Maybellene” was recorded in 1955. America was a much different place at the time. The mythology of it all is reflected in images such as Mrs. Cleaver (from the tv show, “Leave It To Beaver”); all pearls and high heels, bustling about the home, cleaning and preparing supper. Crooners filled the airwaves. Black musicians, like Berry, were relegated to the sidelines of the Entertainment world. Seeking a way into the music world, Berry sought the counsel of Blues legend, Muddy Waters who, in turn, directed him to a production company in Chicago called Chess Records, that was known to be open to producing the work of Black musicians. At the time, Berry’s version of the song that would end up as “Maybellene” was called “Ida Mae”. Berry recorded it, and several others, and left the studio hoping that Chess Records would work their magic. Berry heard nothing from them for weeks until, one day, he happened to hear his song, in his voice, being played on the radio. Delighted and intrigued, he purchased a copy of the single. This is when the story of Rock n’ Roll took a turn.
Unbeknownst to Berry, “Maybellene” had become involved in a practice that was quite common at the time which saw record companies make secret side deals with radio DJs to play their song more often and in more favourable time slots. In return, the record company would assign the DJ a “songwriting” credit on the song thus, they would earn royalties on every sale of music their were promoting on their shows. This arrangement became known as “Payola”.
So, when Chuck Berry purchased that single of his song, he was quick to note that the songwriting credits were split three ways! One went to a man who operated a printing office and was given a cut of the sales in lieu of Chess Records paying their printing bill. The second name on the 45 single was a nationally-known DJ named Alan Freed. In the 1950s, there was no Internet, no YouTube, no MTV/MuchMusic to promote a singer or a band. Instead, performers had to tour relentlessly or else, they had to get their songs played on national radio shows. In those days, there were several DJs who had a nation-wide status…Wolfman Jack, Dick Clark and Alan Freed. Eventually, lawsuits were launched and the practise of Payola was outlawed. Dick Clark and Wolfman Jack agreed to stop extorting payola from record companies and went on to have long and illustrious careers. Alan Freed, on the other hand, was made the poster child for this abusive racket and was drummed out of radio and had his career ruined. As for Chuck Berry, it took him almost forty years (!) to gain the sole songwriting credit for “Maybellene”. In that time, he lost thousands and thousands of dollars in royalties that were rightfully his.
The video for this song is noteworthy, too. Check out the make up of the audience, their fashion and their demeanour as Berry plays. Because radio is an aural medium, many people did not know that Chuck Berry was actually Black until he appeared on the stage. Note how he came on late, after the introductions were made, even though his back-up band was already playing. While he is, generally, accorded much respect these days, it was different back then. It wasn’t easy for Black musicians to stray from their lane, as it were. Berry not only strayed from his lane, he obliterated the dividing lines. But, as this video clearly shows, the white audience doesn’t quite know what to make of him and their reception is, somewhat, chilly. Like Jackie Robinson in Baseball, Chuck Berry was a brave man.
The story of “Maybellene” is one of the more important chapters in modern music history. It helped launch a new genre of music that changed popular music completely. Secondly, it helped expose the grift known as Payola and, as such, every musician who has followed in Chuck Berry’s wake has benefitted by being able to keep more of the earnings that they were entitled to. But, finally, and, perhaps, most importantly of all……”Maybellene” is a terrific, rocking song. So, let your toes tap and fingers snap to the electrifying sounds of a true legend and trailblazer….the Man, himself, Mr. Chuck Berry! Enjoy!
The link to the music video for Maybellene by Mr. Chuck Berry can be found here.
There is a website dedicated to maintaining the legacy of Chuck Berry. It cab be accessed by clicking on the link here.
Thanks to KEXP for supporting important musicians and promoting the music they produce. A link to their website can be found here.