Chuck Berry may have been a late starter in recording terms, but to say he made up for lost time would be one of the great rock ‘n’ roll understatements. He was just two months away from his 30th birthday when, in many ways, an entire era began with the US chart debut of his first single ‘Maybellene’ on Chess Records on 20 August 1955.
The song has long been one of the many set texts of rock ‘n’ roll history created by the brilliant singer-writer-guitarist from St. Louis, residing proudly in both the Grammy and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. In 2004, when Rolling Stone polled 172 music professionals to name their favourite songs of all time, ‘Maybellene’ claimed a rightful place inside the top 20, at No. 16.
By 1955, Berry had only been pursuing a music career in earnest for a couple of years, paying dues in the band of the pianist who would be such a key part of the hit sound he was about to create, Johnnie Johnson. Within days of Chuck meeting Muddy Waters and receiving his entrée to Chess Records, he “and his Combo,” as they would be credited, were recording ‘Maybellene.’
Released in July, it wasted little time in making its debut on the R&B chart, on 6 August; the song’s crossover potential was immediately recognised in swift covers by such artists as Jim Lowe, the Johnny Long Orchestra and the Ralph Marterie Orchestra. Lowe would spent one week on the pop chart with his version, but by then, Berry had secured the glory for himself, as ‘Maybellene’ underlined its appeal to all audiences.
As the single made its bow on Billboard’s Best Sellers In Stores list at No. 13, Berry was touring the US, including shows in Atlanta, Cleveland and at the Brooklyn Paramount. ‘Maybellene’ went on to reach No. 5 pop and, in the week that it first appeared on that chart, was beginning a remarkable 11-week reign on the R&B side. Such was its appeal that it even inspired not one, but two answer records, both called ‘Come Back Maybellene,’ by John Greer and jump blues pianist Mercy Dee.