Pulp Fiction Soundtrack Compilation…Songs #16/250: The Stars of Stage and Screen.

These are the stories behind the most memorable songs from Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals.

Today we are going to do something a little bit different. Instead of choosing one song and focusing on it and the impact that it had on a given movie or musical, we are going to discuss how director Quentin Tarentino uses music to create a stylistic environment for his movie characters to live in. Tarentino has become known as much for how his movies “sound” as he has for how his movies “look”. For him, the musical soundtrack adds layers of detail and meaning in very much the same way as the set design, the cinematography or the fashion choices do. So, in this post, we are going to examine how Quentin Tarentino used music…some of it well known and some of it more under-the-radar, as it were…to create the world of Pulp Fiction.

For anyone who has not watched Pulp Fiction already, here is a brief synopsis of the plot. Before I even begin with that, it is important to note that one of the things that made Pulp Fiction very interesting to watch was that Tarentino’s story involves three interconnected storylines that all house characters who weave in and out of each storyline in differing combinations. The stories are not told in chronological order so there is some piecing together of the puzzle that is required in order to understand what is happening and why as the movie rolls along. However, one of the reasons why Quentin Tarentino won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay is how he always manages to ensure that all scenes and all characters behave in ways that are true to their own individual story arc, even though they may be involved with different characters, in different scenes and in and out of chronological order. The construction of this film is fascinating to me.

In any case, the three story arcs are as follows:

1- A crime boss (played by Ving Rhames) demands that a washed up boxer (Bruce Willis) throw his next boxing match. Willis accepts the bribe money and agrees to throw the fight so that Rhames can place a big bet and make lots of money. However, Willis ends up accidentally winning the fight via knockout and decides to flee with the crime boss’ cash. Needless to say, Rhames vows revenge. So, story arc #1 is about the relationship between Willis and Rhames that plays out all throughout the movie.

Travolta and Jackson as hit men. This scene is an all-time classic. “There’s a Bible passage that I have memorized…”

2- Story Arc #2 involves two hit men (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) who work for Rhames. We follow them for a day as they conduct their business which involves eating breakfast in a diner that is being robbed, stopping by an apartment to retrieve a briefcase belonging to Rhames that had been stolen by petty thieves. *(This scene has become one of the most iconic in recent Hollywood history. The “Royale with cheese” scene helped make Jackson the star he is today. You can view that complete scene here. Warning: lots of violence and profanity…but, in the context of the movie as a whole, it all works). The ramifications of that apartment visit play out over the course of the movie and cause both men to re-evaluate what it is that they are doing with their lives.

3- Story arc #3 involves Travolta’s character performing another duty for his crime boss, Rhames. In this case, Rhames has asked Travolta to entertain his wife for an evening while Rhames is at the big boxing match. (Rhames’ wife is played by Uma Thurman). Needless to say, taking the sexually aggressive wife of his boss out on a date places Travolta’s character is a precarious situation. There is much chemistry between the two and much of what ends up happening after the two return home after their evening on the town fuels the remainder of the movie’s plot; especially for Travolta’s character.

All three story arcs resolve themselves at the end of the movie. Part of the fun with Pulp Fiction was re-watching the movie and figuring out how seamlessly all of the interconnected parts fit together even if you didn;t realize it the first time around. Critics have hailed Pulp Fiction as being Tarentino’s masterpiece and one of the best films of the last half century. I don’t disagree. There is a lot of good acting, good writing and excellent story structure going on in this movie. One of the things that ties it all together is the music so let’s take a closer look at that.

Forrest Gump Soundtrack track listing.

When we talk about the way Quentin Tarentino uses music in his films, it is instructive to make a quick comparison to another famous, successful film that was released around the same time…Forrest Gump. Like Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump is a period piece, meaning that it is set in a certain time period, with the music, costumes, set design and cultural references all being reflective of that period. Forrest Gump takes place in the 1960s in America.The soundtrack for this movie contains many recognizable hits from that time period. As such, many music critics have stated that there are no surprises in the soundtrack. Everything is as expected. For some, that is a strength. For others, they tale the view of only playing the popular, safe songs is a bit of a musical cliche. Tarentino has never been one to settle for cliched responses when more interesting choices exist. So, in all of his movies, he has developed a pattern of choosing music that the cool kids would have listened to; some of it well known and some of it more of an underground variety. His musical choices end up giving his films a cultural cache that other directors just can’t match. So, here are a selection of songs from the soundtrack of the movie, Pulp Fiction. In each case, I will briefly talk about the original artist who recorded the song and then I will talk about the scene in the movie in which the song was played and why Tarentino opted to do what he did by pairing that song with that particular scene. Buckle up! Here we go!

Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon by Neil Diamond (covered in the movie by Urge Overkill).

Neil Diamond wrote this song as a very young man. It was placed on his second album. Diamond says that he wrote this song specifically for the girls that he noticed were starting to come to his shows. He may have been just a young man at the time but Diamond already recognized that his music held a certain power over impressional young girls…a power that he was happy to exploit. This song was one of his early hits that helped establish him as a major player on the music scene in America.

Uma Thurman dancing to this song. Note that she is wearing John Travolta’s coat.

In the movie, this song plays as Travolta and Thurman have returned home from their night on the town. While Travolta is in the bathroom trying to buy some time so he can figure out how to make a graceful exit without offending his boss’ wife, she is dancing to this song in her living room while wearing Travolta’s coat. Wearing a guy’s coat/shirt is usually a turn-on so we all know where this scene is headed…until Thurman starts fishing around in the coat pocket and makes a discovery that changes the entire course of the rest of the movie.

Tarentino has taken a song written by a guy who has all of the power and is using it to attract women and uses it to switch positions and make clear that it is Thurman who is calling the shots in this sexually-charged situation. In writing class, newbie writers are always instructed to create scenes by showing and not telling all of the details. In this scene, Tarentino uses music to do the talking and establish the parameters for each character without either of them having to actually say what they are thinking out loud.

*(You can watch the scene by clicking on the link found in the song title above).

Let’s Stay Together by Al Green.

“Let’s Stay Together” comes from the album of the same name. It was Al Green’s biggest selling single of his career and has come to define much of who he was as a person and as a performer. It is a classic, beautiful song that describes the importance of standing by one another through good times and bad. It is a life message that has helped many a couple over the years.

Bruce Willis listens meekly as he is told to throw his next match…or else!

In the movie, this song plays in its’ entirety in the background of one of the first scenes in the movie. It is the scene in which the crime boss (Rhames) is meeting with Willis’ character and instructing him to throw his upcoming match. For most of the scene, we only see Willis as he listens silently to Rhames telling him how it is going to go. The power dynamic is clear. Rhames does all of the talking and Willis meeking accepts Rhames’ decision. It is also clear that neither man really likes or respects the other. But, for Willis, it is what it is and he feels as if he has no choice in the matter which, by extension, also describes how he views his life as a whole at that moment in time.

Tarentino uses this song as a bit of foreshadowing. As this scene plays out we, the audience, have no idea how inextricably linked both characters will become over the course of the film. Like the song says, they will have good times and bad and, for better or worse, will end up together in a way neither man could have foreseen in this initial scene. For me, this scene really captures the essence of why Pulp Fiction is such an epic movie. At first blush, this scene seems fairly straightforward but, once the movie is over and we all know what happened, to watch this scene again with wiser eyes is a revelation. There is actually so much going on here that you don’t notice at first but upon further review, the attention to detail is simply incredible!

You Can Never Tell by Chuck Berry.

This song was Chuck Berry’s last hit in the 1960s. He wrote it after completing time in jail for violating The Mann Act. This law was passed to deal with the problem of human trafficking and essentially made it illegal to take minors across state lines without permission from the child’s parents. In Berry’s case, I do not know if sexual liberties were in play or if he was targetted because he was a black man and/or a celebrity but, he was charged with taking a fourteen year old Mexican girl from Mexico and placing her to work in a night club in St. Louis, where he was from. Many of Berry’s songs prior to his incarceration had sexual elements to them but, after being released, his first song…”You Can Never Tell”…is a wholesome song about a couple finding true love and making their relationship work.

In a movie filled with great scenes, the Twist contest at Jack Rabbit Slims ranks right up there with the best of them all.

In the movie, this song is used during a classic scene that shows Tarentino’s love for nostalgia. It is the famous Jack Rabbit Slims’ dance contest scene with Thurman and Travolta early on in their date night experience. Tarentino uses this scene to pay homage to the 1960s and 70s. Jack Rabbit Slims is a diner that specializes in recreating the world of the 1960/70s. The host of the dance contest is a man playing Ed Sullivan. The dance contest trophy will be presented by someone playing Marilyn Monroe. When “Sullivan” calls for dance contestants, Thurman enthusiastically volunteers. When Travolta politely declines, Thurman reminds him, in no uncertain terms, that he is to do her bidding because of who her husband is. The power dynamic is set in stone. When they danced, they were supposed to be dancing the Twist. While it starts out that way, the duo end up dancing in almost a dozen different, easily recognizable styles that serve as a real tip of the hat to the era of the 1960s, as well as solidifying the unspoken chemistry that the couple possesses. By the end of the dance, it is plain to see that, as the song states, you never can tell when the right one will come along.

Misirlou by Dick Dale.

I have profiled this song in a previous post which you can read here.

Dick Dale was one of the originators of the “Surf Sound” of the 1960s. He was a pioneering guitar player and remains to this day as one of the most influential musicians of his era.

In the movie, Quentin Tarentino uses this song over the opening credits. It is an instrumental number but it immediately helps create an association for the viewer that this movie is taking place in the 1960s in a time where pulp fiction magazines and dime store detective novels were a thing. “Misirlou” is one of those classic Tarentino song choices because it is something that insiders know well and Tarentino is nothing if not a cultural touchstone geek.

Son Of A Preacher Man by Dusty Springfield.

The great Dusty Springfield.

This is our final song choice of this post. For a while in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, there were many people who felt that British singer Dusty Springfield was set to become the next big thing. But, while she had a huge hit with “Son Of A Preacher Man”, Springfield never really reached the lofty heights in America that many felt were waiting for her. Thus, she stands as one of those under-the-radar cool choices that Tarentino loves to make. Dusty Springfield had a soulful sound to her voice. This song was a bit of a controversial choice during the day because of the subject matter which describes a young girl falling in love with the son of a preacher. At the time, religious leaders were not often mentioned as being the source of sexual attraction but this song does that, albeit with the preacher’s son. Just the same, there was a bit of a forbidden-fruit element to “Son Of A Preacher Man” when it first aired.

Tarentino uses this song again with Travolta and Thurman. It plays as Travolta first shows up at his boss’ house to pick up his wife for their date. The song plays as Thurman watches Travolta via security cameras. She speaks to him via an intercom. It is clear, once again, that Thurman is controlling the situation. The song also helps establish the dangerous tightrope that Travolta is being forced to walk as he goes through with this date.

Overall, the way in which Quentin Tarentino uses music to add layers of meaning to the stories he is telling on screen has become one of his defining characteristics. He is one of my favourite directors. I like so many of his movies such as Reservoir Dogs, Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and From Dusk Till Dawn, just to name a few. He is such a great writer and creator of scenes. But, as much as I admire him for his writing skills, I also love the way he uses music to make his stories better. Hopefully you feel likewise. If you have a favourite Tarentino scene or movie please feel free to let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading my words. Have a great day.

The link to the trailer to the movie, Pulp Fiction can be found here.

The link to the official website for Neil Diamond can be found here.

The link to the official website for Urge Overkill can be found here.

The link to the official website for Al Green can be found here.

The link to the official website for Chuck Berry can be found here.

The link to the official website for Dusty Springfield can be found here.

***As always, all original content found in this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this blog can be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #128: Roll Over Beethoven by Chuck Berry.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, 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. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone 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.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #128: Roll Over Beethoven by Chuck Berry.

Whether it is for an ad campaign or an election, one of the most important factors in predicting the success of your endeavour is a good slogan. A good slogan manages to capture the essence of an entire political campaign or a product line or a new movie, all in a few well-chosen words. Sometimes, a good slogan can even resonate beyond the marketing aspect of why it was first created. I don’t know about you but, I cannot remember any of the slogans that Hillary Clinton used in her campaign but, I sure as heck remember what Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was. A good slogan is a priceless treasure when it comes to launching a new movement and that is exactly what “Roll Over Beethoven” by Chuck Berry was all about. Please allow me to explain.

It is hard to believe that there was a time, not all that long ago, when Rock n’ Roll was not at all a factor on mainstream media broadcasting. Those, like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and others, who played a form of the Blues that contained the earliest foundational beats of what became Rock n’ Roll, did so out of the public eye. They played in speak-easys, honky-tonks, church basements and so on. But, luckily for all of us, Chuck Berry grew up knowing that there was something fundamentally special about the type of music he loved. But, in order to launch a new musical movement and help to bring it into the mainstream, he knew it needed a battle cry…a slogan, if you will. This is what “Roll Over Beethoven” came to be.

Chuck Berry grew up in a house that had a piano in its’ living room. He, also, grew up with a sister who loved music as much as he did. However, she channeled her energy in a more socially-approved manner…she opted to study classical music and thus, she developed into a classically trained pianist. So, in order to gain access to his family’s piano, Chuck Berry had to battle with his sister; when she won, the house filled with symphonies and sonatas. When Chuck won, the house filled with Blues and Soul. Eventually, Chuck Berry tired of this constant battle with his sister. In his mind, the time had passed to be letting long-dead composers rule the airwaves of the nation, as well as, define what “proper” music was meant to be. In order to counteract this imbalance, Berry wrote the song, “Roll Over Beethoven” which was a slogan in a song. Berry’s tune acted as a battering ram upon the door of those who refused to acknowledge the emerging sound of The Blues and the first inklings of Rock n’ Roll. “Roll Over Beethoven” became a mindset adopted by those who followed in Berry’s wake. It was time to push those long-ago musical masterminds aside and make room for those creating new music that was more reflective of the times in which real people actually lived. The new sound Berry was promoting was, in his mind, something that the old composers would probably disapprove of and, as a result, they would be “rolling over” in their graves.

In any case, someone had to lead the way by capturing the attention of the nation and, the world, with a catchy slogan that summed up a brand new musical attitude in a few, well-chosen words. “Roll Over Beethoven” did that for Chuck Berry, as well as those who came after, such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, who were both big fans of the man who grew up with the piano in his house. I am sure there must have been some lively conversations about the nature of music around the Berry Family dining table. For now, we have Chuck Berry to thank for helping to officially launch the era of Rock n’ Roll music.

So, let’s get to listening to one of the most effective marketing campaigns ever devised. Here is, “Roll Over Beethoven” by Mr. Chuck Berry. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Roll Over, Beethoven” by Chuck Berry, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Chuck Berry, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.

RS: The Top 500 Songs In Modern Music History…Song #17: Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, 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. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone 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.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #17: Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry.

“Johnny B. Goode” is one of the best known songs of all-time. It has been inducted into The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in the Song Category. It has, also, been placed into The U.S. Library of Congress as being a song that has made a significant cultural contribution to the nation. It has even been included in a disc of songs that were sent up into outer space to act as being representative of culture on Earth should these songs ever be found by an alien race somewhere in the Galaxy. “Johnny B. Goode” is also regarded as being the very first Rock n’ Roll song to ever hint at the “fame and fortune” side of Rock music. Finally, although Chuck Berry already had several hits under his belt by the time he released, “Johnny B. Goode”, it is generally accepted that it was this song that took his solid career and helped make him a crossover superstar. But, the story of the song is not exactly the easiest to tell. Unlike most stories, this one does not unfold in a linear fashion. Instead, it is more like a patchwork quilt; where each patch tells a chapter of Berry’s life story. For, in essence, that’s what “Johnny B. Goode” is…..it is Chuck Berry’s musical autobiography. So, what I am going to do, moving forward, it to visit the various patches on this quilt and tell each story, for they are all important in forming an overall picture of the man, himself. Here we go!

Race: Chuck Berry was performing in a time where racial segregation was legal and was enshrined in many laws across the land. So, despite his success as a singer, race was never far away from the reality of his existence. A simple example from the song is that, even though this song is his own life story and the fact is that he was a person of colour.….he was not allowed to say that in the song. So, every time you listen to the song and hear him sing something like, “My but, that little country boy could play”, Berry was forced to substitute “Country boy” for his original lyrics which said, “Coloured boy”.

Opening Riff: This is one of those songs that everybody knows from the very first notes of his guitar when he begins to play. The opening guitar riff to “Johnny B. Goode” is easily one of the most iconic guitar riffs of all-time. Yet, Chuck Berry did not come up with it. He copied the riff from another song called, “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman” by Louis Jordan. That song is a big band song but, the underlying groove from the horn section bears an uncanny resemblance to the guitar riff from “Johnny B. Goode”. *(You can listen to “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman” here).

Character Name: Even though the song is about Chuck Berry’s rise to stardom in the music business, he named his fictional character, Johnny B. Goode. So, where did that name come from? The answer is two-fold: First of all, the simple part of the story comes from the fact that Chuck Berry grew up in St. Louis on Goode Ave. So, that’s where “Goode” came from. “Johnny” came from the name of Berry’s piano player and songwriting partner, Johnnie Johnson. Johnson collaborated with Berry on many of his hits such as “Maybelline”, “Sweet Little Sixteen” and many more, including, “Johnny B. Goode”. How their arrangement worked was that Johnson would write the musical structure on the piano and hand it over to Berry, who would convert it into guitar chords and then, write the lyrics. The unfortunate thing is that because the songwriting credit went to Berry, Johnson never received his due from all of the sales of Chuck Berry’s songs. He even sued Chuck Berry, later in life in an attempt to recoup his lost income but his case was thrown out of court because the Statute of Limitations had run out. I find this ironic because, if you remember from our post about the song, “Maybelline” *(which you can read here), Chuck Berry was one of the main singers involved in the Payola Scandal of the 1950s, whereby record companies would give radio DJs a songwriting credit in return for getting airplay for their songs. Such arrangements cut into the rightful amount of money that a singer/songwriter should’ve earned and, in time, it was a practise that was outlawed. Well, “Maybelline” was one of the test songs in that court case so, Chuck Berry, was well aware of the importance of songwriting credit to those who actually created the songs. His unwillingness to allow Johnnie Johnson to have earned his rightful share is a dark mark on an, otherwise, sterling career.

Back To The Future: In the 1980s, sales of “Johnny B. Goode” were given a boost by the inclusion of the song in the movie, “Back To The Future”, starring Michael J. Fox. In a scene that has been described as one of the best musical scenes in movie history, Fox’s character, Marty McFly, joins a band of black musicians on stage at a high school dance and proceeds to electrify the audience by playing “Johnny B. Goode”. There are several things to note in this scene…..first of all, Michael J. Fox incorporates the moves of several legendary guitarists such as when he does the famous windmilling done by Pete Townsend of The Who, Eddie Van Halen’s fret walk, Jimi Hendrix and his behind-the-head style, as well as, Chuck Berry and his iconic duck walk. As well, when the audience warms up, the band leader, whose name was “Marvin Berry” calls up his cousin, “John”, on the phone and lets him listen in and tells him that this could be the type of music he had been looking for. *(You can watch that scene, here).

Overall, “Johnny B. Goode” tells the story of a young, black singer who rose from a simple life to one where his name could be in lights. It is a song that captures the allure of the Rock n’ Roll lifestyle and which fuels the dreams of many a singer and/or band who strum away in they bedrooms, basements, backyards and anywhere else they can think of to express themselves through song. It is one of the most classic of rock songs for a reason.

So, without further delay, here is one of the very best of them all, “Johnny B. Goode” by the great, Chuck Berry. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Chuck Berry, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Johnnie Johnson, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Louis Jordan, can be found here.

The link to the movie trailer for “Back To The Future”, can be found here.

Finally, the link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.

The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History: KEXP- Song #413 …Maybellene by Chuck Berry.

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!

Payola = three “songwriting” credits but, only one actual songwriter (C. Berry).

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.