Maybellene (Chuck Berry)

I have never been much interested in “firsts,” but if I had to make a nomination for the first definitive rock ‘n’ roll record, I’d probably go with Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.” I know all the other contenders and arguments, but in hindsight most were great rhythm and blues records, while Berry’s hit pointed the way of later rock: the guitar-slinging singer-songwriter-auteur of a rollicking rebel vision of male youth roaring down an endless American highway.

More prosaically, it was the first major R&B hit (that is, hit by a Black artist) to “cross over” to the white teen pop charts and dominate them with no significant competition from white covers. There were plenty of white covers, including one by Marty Robbins that made some noise on the C&W charts, but unlike the Pat Boone covers of Little Richard and Fats Domino, they never got traction on the pop scene — and within a few records, Berry’s songs would be hitting quicker and higher on the pop charts than on the racially defined R&B charts.

Another way of saying this is that “Maybellene” was one of the first hits to be thought of specifically as a record rather than a song. The mid-1950s marked a shift from hits that became “standards” — that is, memorable songs, which were originally performed by numerous people and continue to be performed by all kinds of artists, often in varying genres — to “oldies,” records that are distinctive unto themselves. There are dozens of classic versions of “Stardust”; there is only one version of “Maybellene.” (There were plenty of earlier examples that were mainly records, like the Chords’ “Sh-Boom” and the Crows’ “Gee” — but both of those had serious competition from white covers. Berry’s sound was much harder to mimic, since it involved his distinctive voice, his distinctive guitar, and a terrific Chicago blues backing band.)

Which, for anyone who wants to sing and play the song, presents a problem. Berry is one of my all-time favorite songwriters, and I’ve already posted my versions of a bunch of his songs — “No Money Down,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Memphis,” “Nadine,” “Promised Land” — but I know lots more that I haven’t posted because I can’t think of anything even slightly interesting to do with them. I have nothing to add to “Johnny B Goode” or “No Particular Place to Go,” or “Rock and Roll Music,” or…

…until recently, I would have said, “Maybellene.” But, dammit, I wanted to play the song and finally decided to just start playing it regularly and try to find a way to relax into it rather than attempting to recreate the way Berry did it. I wasn’t out to remake or transform the song, just to do it naturally rather than imitatively. And the more I played it, the more I enjoyed it. So here it is.