Saturday, October 9, 2010

October 9: Chuck Berry, "Maybellene"

Artist: Chuck Berry
Song: "Maybellene"
Album: Maybellene (single)
Year: 1955

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While all songs and artists have their wide range of origins, in the end, nearly every song that has even the slightest bit of rock or pop to it can be traced back to one single artist.  Whether it was due to the brilliantly simple musical arrangements, the fantastic spirit and energy behind the music, or the universally common themes of which he sang, there is no other artist in the history of music that carries the same influence and importance as the one and only Chuck Berry.  Though there were a few other artists that broke through into the mainstream with the rock sound before him, there is simply no other artist that shaped the future generations in nearly every musical aspect as one finds in the massive amount of legendary singles in the Chuck Berry catalog.  From iconic numbers like "Johnny B. Goode" to the slightly risqué "No Particular Place To Go" to the rock and roll anthem that is "Roll Over Beethoven,"one can find countless covers and re-workings of Chuck Berry songs all over the past six decades of recorded music.  Yet try as they might, none even come close to the fantastic energy and honest sound that one finds within the Berry originals.  Though nearly every song he ever recorded can be labeled as a "classic," there is one song that stands above the rest in terms of both lasting impact as well as the initial significance to the formation of rock music.  Pulling together every element, both musical and lyrical, that makes rock and roll so great, there is simply no other song in history that carries the same weight as Chuck Berry's 1955 classic, "Maybellene."

From the moment "Maybellene" begins, it is clearly a song unlike any other, as the quick opening riff from Berry immediately injects the attitude of the song, and the rest of his band quickly joins in with a steady, hard back-beat.  The song itself owes most of its mood to the drumming of the great Jasper Thomas, as it is his hard hitting rhythm that drives "Maybellene."  When combined with the lyrics, one can easily feel each drum beat sound like someone hitting the side of their car whilst driving and listening to the song.  Adding a second layer to this sound as well as to the sense of movement is the bass playing of Willie Dixon, and their combined effort easily makes them one of the finest rhythm sections in all of music history.  If one listens carefully, there is pianist Johnnie Johnson playing, yet his contributions are largely buried under the other performers.  It is somewhat due to the volume of the rhythm section and guitar that makes "Maybellene" so significant, as it is one of the more "in your face" recordings of the era, and is one of the key reasons it retains its impact all these decades later.  Berry's brief solo highlights the deep groove on the song, and the slight distortion on his guitar is nothing short of perfect.  Needing no fancy studio tricks or lengthy instrumental passages, "Maybellene" proves that the true magic of rock and roll lies within simple, honest, and high energy arrangements.

Along with composing what remains one of the most perfect musical pieces in history, "Maybellene" is made all the better due to the fantastic voice and equally brilliant lyrics from Chuck Berry.  Well before the advent of any studio manipulation, Berry has one of the most pure voices in history, and there is never any mistaking him when he is singing.  Combining a youthful energy with a clear nod to blues vocalists, Chuck Berry brings as much soul and spirit at any other singer in history.  It is due to this straightforward, honest approach that his songs gain an unrivaled sense of authenticity, and many of his songs take on an aura of being autobiographical.  However, though both the music and vocals on "Maybellene" are legendary, it is the lyrics of the song that make it a true classic.  In short, "Maybellene" boasts everything that "is" rock and roll, as it speaks of fast cars, fast women, and the frustrations of love and lust.  The fact that Chuck Berry delivers this with the energy and slight humor that he does is what catapults the song far above its peers, and it is also why one can look to "Maybellene" as the foundation for the entire "idea" of rock and roll.  The words Berry sings takes the listener on the high speed pursuit in his V8 Ford, and from the rain to the thrill of the chase, "Maybellene" is able to mesmerize listeners unlike any other song in history, solidifying its place as "the" ultimate rock and roll song.

Truth be told, "Maybellene" is actually inspired and adapted from another song, as Berry adapted it from the traditional fiddle-folk tune, "Ida Red."  For a number of reasons, this fact is largely unknown, though Berry has openly admitted it throughout his career.  However, this only goes to prove the roots from whence rock and roll music came, and the similarity between the two songs is so distant that unless you are told firsthand, one would rarely connect the two.  The unmatched status of "Maybellene" is further reinforced by the fact that when it was released in July of 1955, it achieved what is seen as the "Triple Crown," as it simultaneously topped the pop, country, and R&B charts.  This is an achievement that never been matched, and the song itself sounds as fresh and enjoyable today as it did nearly sixty years ago.  Furthermore, "Maybellene" was able to break down many racial barriers, as the songs' protagonist is racially and geographically ambiguous.  It was due to this fact that Chuck Berry became one of the first musicians to regularly play in both sides of the segregated music clubs that were prevalent at the time.  In nearly every aspect, "Maybellene" completely changed the entire face of popular music, and all these decades later, the song still stands as one of the greatest and most influential recordings.  From the simple, yet unforgettable musical arrangement to the trend-setting lyrics, there is simply no other song in history that can boast as much impact or true musical perfection as one finds in Chuck Berry's iconic 1955 single, "Maybellene."

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