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This evolved out of "Ida Red," a hillbilly song by Bob Wills Berry from the early '50s. When Berry came to Chess Records in Chicago, Leonard Chess, who owned the studio, had Berry record this and renamed it.
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.
The title is also the name of a cosmetics company. Berry got a degree in Cosmetology, the science of makeup.
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 wrote this to appeal to white teenagers, which would greatly expand his audience. He sang clearly to make the lyrics easy to understand.
According to Berry, Maybellene was the name of a cow in child's nursery rhyme.
The B-Side of the single was a slow Blues song called "Wee Wee Hours."
According to Berry, the tape was sped up prior to mastering.
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. (thanks, Brad Wind - Miami, FL, for above 4)
A version by Johnny Rivers reached #12 in the US in 1964.
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