This evolved out of "Ida Red," a Hillbilly song by Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys from the early '50s. Berry heard that song on the Country radio station KMOX in St. Louis, but didn't know who recorded it.
Reworking the song into a tune he called "Ida Mae," Berry performed the song around St. Louis with his group, the Johnnie Johnson Trio.
Berry had never recorded, but when he went to Chicago to see Muddy Waters perform, he stayed in town to pitch himself to Leonard Chess of Chess Records, who asked him to come back the next week with some original songs. Berry returned with his bandmates Johnnie Johnson (piano) and Eddie Hardy (drums), and a demo reel with four songs, including "Ida Mae." That's the one Leonard Chess liked best, but he asked Berry to change so there wouldn't be any confusion with "Ida Red" and to fend off any copyright claims. Berry changed the lyrics, turning it into a song about fast cars - one of his favorite topics. It was the first song the band recorded, and it proved a challenge: they recorded 36 takes.
This song tells the story of a girl who keeps cheating on her man. Various cars appear in the lyrics; Berry sings about chasing Maybellene in his V8 Ford while she drag races a man in a Cadillac with her Coupe de Ville.
There are a few different stories floating around about how the song got its name. Berry has said that Maybellene was the name of a cow in child's nursery rhyme, but Johnnie Johnson recalled that there was a box of Maybellene mascara in the office, which gave Leonard Chess the idea for the title.
Chess Records gave the disc jockey Alan Freed a cowriting credit on this song (and also some cash) in exchange for playing it on the radio. Deals like this led to the Payola scandals, which led to rules prohibiting record companies from paying DJs to play their songs. Marshall Chess, the son of Chess founder Leonard Chess, recalled to The Independent newspaper May 27, 2008: "He [Freed] played the hell out of Chuck's first record, 'Maybellene', because of that. My father says he made the deal, and by the time he got to Pittsburgh, which was half a day's drive away, my uncle back at home was screaming, 'What's happening? We're getting all these calls for thousands of records!'"
Deals like this were perfectly legal and fairly common at the time, but when the government took action in 1959, Freed refused to admit to taking Payola, insisting he was acting as a consultant to the music industry. Holding steadfast to this position, the radio and TV stations he worked for fired him, and his career never recovered. In contrast, Dick Clark admitted to taking cash and gifts, and simply stopped doing so when it was declared illegal. He was able to grow his media empire considerably after the scandal.
Berry was 29 years old when he recorded this song, but he knew that his audience was teenagers, so he wrote the song to appeal to that crowd - the ones fascinated with cars and experiencing young love. Berry also took care to sing it as clearly as possible so it would have more crossover appeal with a white audience. His strategy worked: the song went to #1 on the R&B chart and also made #5 on the Pop chart.
Chuck Berry is a rock and roll original, but he doesn't consider this a rock song. Said Berry: "'Maybellene' was very much a country song, with country lyrics. Maybe a little faster but basically it was country."
Soon after this was released, Elvis Presley started performing it at some of his live appearances. Many other artists also recognized its propulsive appeal and covered the song. British acts - notably The Beatles and The Rolling Stones - often recorded Berry's songs, but the UK act that grabbed this one was Gerry and the Pacemakers, who included it on their 1963 debut album How Do You Like It?
Other artists to cover the song include George Jones, The Searchers, Jerry Lee Lewis and Foghat.
The B-Side of the single was a slow Blues song called "Wee Wee Hours."
One-third of the composing credit went to Russ Fratto for the sole purpose of making sure that Berry got more royalties than Alan Freed (Fratto was a local DJ who was a close friend of Berry's). He agreed to give Berry his share. In those days, it was common to give Freed a composer credit in exchange for airplay on his show. Freed would get royalties, and the song would become a hit.
A version by Johnny Rivers reached #12 in the US in 1964.