Recording Date: May 21, 1955, Universal Recording Studio, Chicago. Sound Engineer and Producer: Bill Putnam. Maybellene was Berry’s first recording, his first experience inside a recording studio. He was 29 years of age.

This recording was released by Chess records. By August of 1955, it had reached the #5 position on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. None of Elvis Presley’s Sun records ever reached the top 40 of the Billboard chart. Elvis’ RCA Victor 45 “Heartbreak Hotel” was his first Billboard top 40 hit. It reached the #1 position in March of 1956. Carl Perkins’ Sun 45 “Blue Suede Shoes” reached the Billboard #2 position in March of 1956, its distribution made possible with the $40,000 Sam Phillips had from his sale of Presley’s contract to RCA Victor in November of 1955. Bo Diddley, who recorded for the Chess subsidiary Checker records, did not have a Billboard top 40 hit until October of 1959 with “Say Man”, the only top 40 hit he ever had, which reached the #20 position.

It is unknown whether Berry heard any of Elvis’ or Carl Perkins’ Sun releases before he recorded on May 21, 1955. Before Maybellene, Berry was a St. Louis R&B/Jazz Guitarist playing small live dates in a small combo (Guitar, Piano, Bass & Drums). We can be sure, however, that he had been listening to honky-tonk country and western swing records on the radio and/or the juke boxes, because it shows up in the vocal and guitar phrasing and the song structure of Maybellene. Maybellene is similar to an earlier country honky-tonk hit “Ida Red”. Several days prior to May 21, 1955, Berry traveled to Chicago to see the Chess Blues vocalist and guitarist Muddy Waters perform live. He was able to talk with Waters after his show. He introduced himself as a St. Louis guitarist and asked Waters who he needed to see to make a record. Waters gave him Leonard Chess’ name and location. He auditioned for Chess, playing 3 R&B numbers and Maybellene. Maybellene was the only tune Chess showed any interest in. Berry was signed on the strength of that tune. Chess sent him to Bill Putnam’s Universal Studio to cut the song, and the rest is Rock & Roll history.

It is reasonable to infer that Berry spent his musical time and effort developing Maybellene because he wanted a bigger audience, an integrated radio audience, a crossover audience. So did Leonard Chess. So did Elvis , Carl Perkins and Sam Phillips. So did Bill Putnam.

Sound men like Phillips and Putnam took the talent and creativity of musicians like Berry, Perkins and Presley and produced records that were altogether new and different, and the post-war teenagers and young adults living in the mid-1950s were ready for it. In 1956, they and their followers began to turn the recording industry upside down. In 1956, there was plenty of amplified echo, reverb and boogie rhythm jumping out of juke boxes and car radios.
Rock on!

Maybellene – Chuck Berry – Chess 1604 (1955)

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