Maybelline - Chuck Berry

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"Maybelline" - Chuck Berry (1955)

“Maybelline” was a critical milestone in 1955 for Chuck Berry and a pivotal song in the annals of rock and roll music.

The composition grew out of an old but upbeat country song, “Ida Red” that Berry was used to playing at “salt and pepper” clubs that had a mixed black and white audience. Encouraged by legendary fellow musician Muddy Waters to record his own version of the track, Berry renamed the song “Ida May” and brought it to Leonard Chess of Chess Records in Chicago.

Chess liked the odd concept of what he described as a “hillbilly song sung by a black man,” but wanted to update and broaden the sound. He added a bass and maracas player to the trio for the recording but decided that the lyrics were still what he called “too rural” so he had them rewritten to suit the younger generation. Spotting a mascara box produced by the Maybelline company, Chess reportedly said: “Well, hell, let’s name the damn thing Maybelline.”

Musically, the combination of the old country and western style, bluesy guitar picking and the catchy backbeat of Johnny Johnson’s piano has created one of the pivotal songs in the birth of rock n roll.
Opening with a series of fanfare-like opening notes on Berry’s electric guitar which is soon joined by the driving rhythm of Jasper Thomas on drums and Willie Dixon on bass. The first verse is a familiar enough lament, a lover asking his girl why she won’t be true.

Suddenly though, the whole tempo of the melody changes, as Berry describes – using the hip slang of the time – a car chase between the singer and the elusive Maybelline. A rousing guitar solo shows off Berry’s fingering skills, and then the lyrics resume, as Berry sings about how Maybelline, although she was driving a fast Cadillac, she was overtaken by Berry in his V8 Ford.

The lyrics were rewritten specifically to suit the younger generation.

Chess remembered, “The kids wanted the big beat, cars, and young love. It was the trend and we jumped on it.”

The end result was a witty, modern retelling of the lover winning his sweetheart, but in this high-speed version, the action occurs out on the highway.

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