To mark the passing of rock-n-roll legend Chuck Berry, Andy Royston takes another listen to the man’s first big hit.
It was a spring day in Chicago’s South Side, just off 47th St, then the home of the blues. Some guy up from St. Louis walked in the door on a mission to see Leonard Chess, owner of Chess Records to see if he could make a deal. His name? Chuck Berry.
The night before Berry had been watching Muddy Waters at the Palladium Theater, and – the story goes – Muddy directed him to go see Leonard Chess. It’s likely that Berry knew very well that Chess was the company to see. It’s also quite likely that Berry was in town specifically to hit the main record companies of the city and Chess was high on the list.
Berry and Leonard Chess hit it off very well – Berry had brought tapes of his bluesy material he’d been working St Louis clubs as part of the Tommy Stevens Combo and had been honing his style for quite a few years.
The label had been doing well with its blues roster, but Leonard Chess was looking for a way to ‘cross over’ and achieve some success on the white-dominated pop charts.
Chess wasn’t especially impressed with the blues material Berry brought to him but was fascinated by a standout up-tempo hillbilly song : a two minute motor-mouth number detailing an attempt to catch up a girl called Ida Red, she driving her Coup DeVille while he persued in his V-8 Ford.
It turned out that back in St. Louis Chuck Berry had been getting a name for slipping Country and Western tunes into the set. Berry was equally adept at gospel, vocal harmonies and jump blues, but Berry was quite the showman. These only half-serious country numbers were going down a storm and the crowds were beginning to flock.
‘People seemed to really get a kick out of it. They’d be hollerin’ and dancin’ and having a good time… They just ate it up. And I felt really happy for Chuck ’cause that was real brave of him. I guess I should have known. The public was always lookin’ for something new and a group of black men playing hillbilly songs was definitely new”
– Johnnie Johnson, Piano, Tommy Stevens Combo
Leonard and his brother Phil both felt that the song had hit written all over it. “There was something about the rhythm – the beat. The song had a whole new feel to it. Leonard knew we had something.” said Phil. “The big beat, cars and young love. It was a trend and we jumped on it.”
The song may have had musical elements that were familiar – there were several hillbilly radio hits using the Ida Red theme – but it was the lyrics that hit home hardest. Some hold that the song may have been influenced by a spate of Hot Rod Race hits a few years earlier, but Berry’s song was a story all on its own. The word play was wonderful – the song introduced the word ‘Motorvating’ to the world.
Getting it down on vinyl wasn’t easy. Check Berry remembers endless takes of the song as they tried to get the studio sound down on wax. There was also a bit of an arguement over the song’s title. Leonard Chess complained that the title had already been taken. Those who were there disagree on who and how the new song title came about, but this is my clear favourite:
We started puttin’ our heads together tryin’ to come up with a title. See, it had to be something with the same number of syllables so Chuck could fit it into what he was already doing. Well we were sitting there thinking when all of a sudden Leonard looked over in the corner and saw a bottle of Maybelline macara. Leonard got a big ol’ smile on his face and said “Why don’t we call the damn thing Maybelline?”
We had to change the spelling ’cause Chess said he didn’t want to get into trouble with the company, but that’s where the name Maybellene came from.
– Johnnie Johnson, Piano, Tommy Stevens Combo
Now there’s one small detail that the biographers tend to gloss over when telling this story. Before his famous trip to the Windy City Chuck Berry had recently completed a beauty and cosmetology course. With this in mind, who is really more likely to come up with the final name?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
October 20, 2015
Great article on a this legend, Andy. I learnt some stuff!
Don’t know if today’s guitar freaks take him seriously as a guitarist? Plays the hell out of the things though, can’t he? And his legendary dance just added fun into his performances. I think anyway.
Although he’s a bit before my time I do so dig his tunes:
Sweet Little Sixteen.
Merry Christmas Baby.
And the smile forcer… My Ding-a-Ling.
Keep these music articles of yours coming, please.