There was this country fiddle tune called "Ida Red". Bluegrass bands still perform it today. The lyrics change, depending on the vocalist, but the refrain should be the same -- "Ida Red, Ida Red, I'm a plum fool about Ida Red." The most famous versions of the country song were by Roy Acuff and Bob Wills. Berry said that he first heard the country song on the radio when he was a youngster living in St Louis.In the early 1950's, Chuck Berry acquired an electric guitar -- he hoped to make some spending money by performing privately at parties and banquets. Berry is widely regarded as the first ever of the famous electric guitar players.
As Berry worked on his music, he modified that old song Ida Red and gave it a new title--Ida May--to better fit his style. Berry met Muddy Waters, a famous blues performer, and Muddy pulled some strings and arranged a recording date for Berry at Chess records. Leonard Chess, the owner of the label, wanted Ida May released as a single. But he did not like the name. It had to be changed! Berry says he quickly came up with a new name -- Maybellene -- and that name came from the name of a cow he read about in grade school.
The track was recorded and it became Berry's first hit. Here is an old video of Chuck Berry performing Maybellene. After the video, I will tell you the rest of the story of Maybellene.
Leonard Chess knew how to make a hit. He also knew Alan Freed, the famous east coast white deejay who was breaking the new, somewhat scandalous, R&B music to American teenagers. Chess made a deal with Freed. Freed would receive one third of the songwriting credits and royalties for the song Maybellene. The catch -- Freed would plug it and make it a hit on his show. A song that made it on Freed's show would become a hit nationally. The plan worked and, of course, Maybellene was a catchy song too. In fact, Maybellene ended up being one of the top songs of 1955. Berry's career was underway and he was to eventually become a musical icon. Other artists, including Johnny Rivers, first gained fame by re-recording Chuck Berry's innovative songs. Even the Beatles performed Chuck Berry music in their formative years. In the 1980's, Berry went to court and a judge returned to him the writing credit, and hence the royalties, for the song Maybellene.
If you are interested in music history, a sample of Ida Red is provided below. Again, this is the song that Chuck Berry says led to his writing Maybellene. Frankly, I think the two are very different from one another, but history is history and I am not going to argue with Chuck Berry about the inspiration for his music.
Steven L. Smith
Bellingham WA Home Inspections