Friday, November 14, 2008

Well, That Was Fun...

Shall we now speak of other things?

In 1954 and 1955, two singles were released: Elvis Presley's "That's All Right, Mama" b/w "Blue Moon of Kentucky," and Chuck Berry's "Maybellene" b/w "Wee, Wee Hours." Neither can claim to be the first rock-n-roll records -- that honor should probably go to Ike Turner's "Rocket 88" -- but between them they pretty much defined the genre.

They're weirdly reflective of each other; the A sides were, respectively, a white Southerner singing black blues, and a black native of St. Louis singing hopped-up white western swing. Both B sides reverted back to racial type -- "Blue Moon" a reworking of Bill Monroe's breakthrough 1950 hit and "Hours" a slow Chicago blues as black as you can get. The records stare at each other through the racial mirror of the Jim Crow South, perplexed at the reversed-color image.

Historians tell us that the original title of "Maybellene" was "Ida Red," but a current record was on the market with that name (possibly the 1952 recording by Chris Powell And The Five Blue Flames -- which featured a young Clifford Brown on trumpet) and producer Leonard Chess wanted a different name. Berry and co-composer Johnnie Johnson spotted a box of Maybelline mascara in a corner of the studio, noted that the name fit the scansion, and went with it.

This causes some confusion. There is an "Ida Red" fiddle tune that appears in a Civil-War-era songbook, arranged for guitar and banjo. Riley Puckett, among many other hillbilly-era musicians, recorded it in 1926 and it was the second-best-selling record of the year. Charlie Poole used bits and pieces of it and combined them with the chorus of "Cripple Creek" in his 1929 record, "Shootin' Creek." "Ida Red" was a number one for Bob Wills in 1940, and it is this version that Berry is supposed to have modified to make "Maybellene."

But listen to Wills' version of "Ida Red."
How the hell do you get from there to "Maybellene"? About the only thing the two songs share is accent on two and four; the line lengths, lyrical scansion, structure, verse shape -- they share virtually nothing. The "Ida Red" story is mighty fishy indeed. In fact, I'd sooner assert that "Ida Red" inspired Bill Monroe's "Uncle Pen" than it did "Maybellene."

[Later edit: I'm cooling on this idea now. You actually can fit "Maybellene"'s verse into the verse of "Ida Red." But the choruses still are night and day.]

At any rate... What a song! Berry's casual pun -- "motorvatin' over the hill" doesn't really work; it's more a visual than an auditory pun. But you have to give him credit for putting it in anyway. He gets in three automotive brand-names in as many lines in the first verse -- the man knew his Krazy Kar Kulture audience. It's an interesting subtlety: Berry enunciates his words very carefully -- he knows that the story of the car-race with Maybellene will be lost on his audience if he doesn't get the rush of words out clearly.

But it's the guitar solo, isn't it. Good God, the guitar solo. We'd heard exactly those notes before -- T-Bone Walker played exactly that two-note bent riff, and Berry makes no secret of the debt he owes him. No, the beauty of the solo is the way the rest of the band really digs in -- the drums pop with extra force, the piano pounds away. A tremor of delight runs through these musicians; they know they are participating in a very exciting thing indeed.

Here's a 1958 live version from German television. If you don't let it play until at least the guitar solo, you should be taken out and shot for the L-7 square you are. And if, after the solo, you don't want to run out and buy a Gibson ES-335 and try a few of those moves yourself, I don't want to know you. (Also, golly, was Jimi Hendrix watching this?)


Anonymous said...

Ah, if only there were any other Clifford Brown than the "young" one. And it wasn't even drugs.

Anonymous said...

Slightly off topic, but thanks for mentioning Clifford Brown. He's one of my all time favorites, I love his sound. I also love the lyrics Jon Hendricks (he of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and a nice little part in White Men Can't Jump) set to Joy Spring that the Manhattan Transfer sang on Vocalese.

Neddie said...

Well, by "young" I meant that it was his first appearance on a record in any shape. He did manage to stay out of deadly automobiles for another three years, thus growing "older."

Roger D. Parish said...

And if, after the solo, you don't want to run out and buy a Gibson ES-335 and try a few of those moves yourself, I don't want to know you.

Oh, that my knees would still permit such moves.

Anonymous said...

Neddie, do you think this was Chuck's band, or a studio band?

Neddie said...

House band, without question. Chuck is notoriously cheap, and always plays with a local pick-up band. I once watched him play on Johnny Carson's show, with Carson's Orchestra. He has a cue -- his leg goes up sideways to signal the end of the song; Doc Severinson missed the cue, and "Johnny B. Goode" went on for another chorus. Hilarious.

Anonymous said...

There's a documentary of Chuck Berry performing a tribute show to himself in St. Louis with an all-star band, including one Keith Richards. Great fun, includes footage from the rehearsals, etc.

As they're working up "Oh, Carol", Chuck stops the music. It seems there's a little two-note riff leading into the chorus. Keith is attacking it by bending up, then down (repeat 3x). This is completely unacceptable to Chuck. "It starts on the high note," he explains. Keith plays it again, bending up, then down. Chuck is not happy, dismissing Mr. Richards with the explanation, "I wrote it. I know how it goes."