Welcome to Deep Tracks in tax law history. I am your actuarial host, Doug “the Deductionator” McCulloch, and today we will be discussing the exciting world of 1099s…

Okay, okay, none of that is true. This is a rock history podcast, silly! We don’t talk about trivial things like “tax law” and such. Although, if I was an accountant, I think I would include “the Deductionator” on all of my stationary. My ads on bus stop benches would read, “I’ll be back…with your return!” or “Hasta la vista estate tax!”

Yeah, I know, my brain is a stupid mishmash of dad jokes and outdated pop culture references. The other day I was driving and I started fantasizing about someday, after the death of Jean Claude Van Dam, building a dam in his honor that I would then name the “Jean Claude Van Dam Memorial Dam,” which the shortened name would be the Van Dam Dam, and then when things went awry during the construction process, I would curse, “this damn Van Dam dam!”

Does any of this have anything to do with this episode’s topic? Of course not! And I don’t know how to smoothly segue from that into my material, so I’ll instead play my amazing segue music…

Last episode we spent some time in Memphis, talking about B.B. King, Ike Turner, and the first rock song: “Rocket 88.” Then we travelled over to New Orleans to talk about Fats Domino and focus a bit on his career. I then ended last episode saying that we would be travelling to Chicago next. But first, in our journey from New Orleans to Chicago, we’re going to make a quick stop in St. Louis, Missouri.

In the year 1926, in a middle-class neighborhood known as “the Ville,” Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born to Henry—a contractor and Baptist deacon—and Martha—a certified school principal. Just like with Fats Domino, Charles—or “Chuck,” as he is more commonly known—took to music at a young age and gave his first known public performance in 1941—at the age of 15—while a student at Sumner High School.

However, Chuck Berry’s early life was a little more scandalous than Fats Domino’s. Three years after his first public performance, while still a student at Sumner, young Chuck was arrested for armed robbery after robbing three shops in Kansas City and then stealing a car at gunpoint. In his autobiography, Chuck said that his car had broken down and he and his friends flagged a passing car which they then stole at gunpoint using a nonfunctional pistol.

But this isn’t just interesting backstory—this would also prove to be the next step in Chuck Berry’s music career! You see, after being convicted, Chuck was sent to the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, which is near Jefferson City, Missouri. While he was there, he did some boxing, but more importantly, he formed a singing quartet that became so good, the authorities would even let them perform outside the detention facility.

In 1947, at the age of 21, Chuck was released from the reformatory and about a year later, in 1948, he married Themetta “Toddy” Suggs. They had their first child, Darlin Ingrid Berry, on October 3, 1950. Chuck was supporting his family by working at, not one, but two automobile assembly plants and as a janitor in the apartment building where he and his young family lived. It was also around this time that he trained as a beautician at the Poro College of Cosmetology because… why not?

The dude was working hard, but more importantly, they had something to show for it: the family purchased a little 3-bedroom, 1-bath, brick cottage on Whittier Street, which today is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Chuck Berry House.

Through all of this, however, somehow, Chuck was able to fit in his love of music. He started doing some gigs with local bands in St. Louis as extra income at first, channeling the riffs and showmanship of one of his earliest and biggest musical influences, T-Bone Walker.


That was a clip of T-Bone performing live in the UK in 1966. And because I can’t help myself, here’s a clip from that same performance of Dizzy Gillespie playing a “trumpet” solo using only his mouthpiece:


That last clip actually had nothing to do with the history of rock ‘n’ roll, but I couldn’t reference a show that had both T-Bone Walker and Dizzy Gillespie on stage together and not highlight that fact in some way.

Anyway, as we’ll notice in minute, once we start listening to Berry’s music, I’ll point out some similarities between his playing style and T-Bone Walker’s. But I also mentioned how Walker’s showmanship would likewise influence Chuck Berry. We’ll get to Berry’s famous duck walk in a moment, but if you google pictures of T-Bone Walker, one of the first ones that’ll pop up is one in which he’s doing the splits while playing the guitar behind his head. Walker very much so channeled Charlie Patton in his music and his performing—and if you don’t remember who Charlie Patton is, go back and listen to Episode 2. And if you’re too lazy to go back and listen to Episode 2, then fine, I’ll tell you real quick: Charlie Patton was an early Delta Blues artist who influenced countless blues musicians after him, not only in their guitar playing, but also in their showmanship with that guitar. Many people often think of Jimi Hendrix as doing a lot of his crazy guitar antics spontaneously, out of nowhere, but the dude was carrying on a long and rich tradition of blues and blues-based artists.

But getting back to Berry: by early 1953 he was performing with a trio led by pianist Johnnie Jonson, with Ebby Hardy on drums, that would lead to years of collaboration between the three of them.

However, it’s here that I’ll insert that there was something that made Berry a little different than most blues guitarists, and that was…his love of country western music.

There are funny anecdotes of Chuck Berry playing at country music shows in which he would come out on stage to a predominantly white audience, who were all expecting a white performer, and then Chuck Berry walks out and they’re all scratching their heads. This would be the same story—only more so—for black country artist Charley Pride who was a contemporary of Berry’s and who, as opposed to Chuck Berry who is obviously associated with rock music, leaned into his country western interests and went on to become one of the biggest names in country music—and certainly the biggest name among black country artists. Charley Pride was also a professional baseball player, before his career as a professional musician, which a lot of people don’t know. And because I most likely won’t be diving too deep into Pride’s career in this podcast, I will gladly refer you all—y’all?—to the podcast “Rock ‘n’ Roll Bedtime Stories,” which has a whole episode on Charley Pride and is to this day one of my favorite episodes done by them. I encourage you to check it out. In fact, that was some Charley Pride you heard playing in the background there.

But anyway, once again getting back to Berry! He not only had white people scratching their heads when he played his country stuff, but black people also, and no less so. As Berry himself wrote of these shows: “Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of our country stuff on our predominantly black audience and some of our black audience began whispering ‘who is that black hillbilly at the Cosmo?’ After they laughed at me a few times they began requesting the hillbilly stuff and enjoyed dancing to it.”

This reinforces the John Covach quote I read a couple episodes ago in which he mentioned that anecdotal evidence suggests that people’s listening tastes weren’t as segregated as record charts in the 1950s assumed and portrayed.

In 1954, Chuck Berry would finally get the chance to get into the recording studio. He did so through the small-time, indie label, Ballad Records, with the group Joe Alexander and the Cubans. The songs they released were “I Hope These Words Will Find You Well” and “Oh, Maria!”

What’s interesting about this release through Ballad records is, even though it shows up on the Chuck Berry Database—which is a collection of information about his full discography and recordings—the record itself has Joe Alexander and the Cubans as the headliner. That’s because Chuck was still a nobody and Joe Alexander was the big name. So, in this case, Chuck wasn’t the front man: he was one of “the Cubans.” Or rather, “Charles Berryn” was. You see, Chuck Berry was sometimes nervous about his highly religious father discovering that his son was pursuing a career in secular music. Remember our brief discussion a couple episodes back about many artists being torn between gospel music and “the devil’s music”? So, some of the posters and other items promoting his shows at this time billed Chuck Berry as “Charles Berryn,” spelled B-E-R-R-Y-N—so, obviously he wasn’t trying that hard to be incognito. And he wasn’t the only one using a different name for those Ballad Records recordings: Oscar Washington—the other guitarist in the group—was listed as “Faith Douglas.” I am not sure why Oscar Washington had an alter ego—it wasn’t really worth my time to research it—but Chuck’s pseudonym flip-flopping does show his struggle between his religious upbringing and his love of music. It could also be part of the reason he would make the decision to pursue music somewhere else other than St. Louis, a little further away from his old stomping grounds.

So, this is where I am going to quote from an NPR article by Jesse Wegman on the story behind Maybellene:

“On a Friday night in May 1955, Berry drove up to Chicago to catch a show by his idol, the blues great Muddy Waters. "And I listened to him for his entire set," Mr. Berry recalls. "When he was over, I went up to him, I asked him for his autograph and told him that I played guitar. 'How do you get in touch with a record company?' He said, 'Why don't you go see Leonard Chess over on 47th?'"

“So early Monday morning, Berry made his way to Chess Records and positioned himself in a store across the street. When Leonard Chess arrived, Berry ran over and made his pitch. Chess was impressed by the young man's self-confidence and told him to come back with a tape of his own material. Berry returned the following week, bringing with him the other members of the trio, pianist Johnnie Johnson and drummer Eddie Hardy, and four new songs.

I will insert a quick side note here: sometimes his drummer’s name appears as “Eddie Hardy” and sometimes as “Ebbie Hardy.” And even when it appears as “Ebbie,” it’s sometimes spelled “E-B-B-I-E-“ and sometimes it’s spelled “E-B-BY,” so they’re all over the place with his name. I don’t know if this was a conscious choice on the part of Eddie/Ebby or if it was just a bunch of spelling errors or a little bit of both—maybe someone misspelled his name once and he just leaned into and embraced it. After all, you’d be surprised how often people add an “H” on the end of my name, not realizing that in doing so they’re calling me “dough” instead of “Doug,” and I gave up correcting that oversight years ago—although, I will admit to becoming increasingly “doughy” in my advancing years, which makes the spelling error increasingly-yet-painfully relevant.

But moving on! Initially, Chuck had thought it would be his blues music that would interest the Chess brothers. After all, Chess Records was known for being a major label for blues music—especially electric blues. But it was Berry’s take on an old country tune called “Ida Red” that really excited Leonard.

Thus, on May 21st, 1955, Chuck Berry recorded an adaptation of “Ida Red” using the title… “Maybellene.” He had his old bandmates from the trio join him—Johnnie Johnson on piano, and Ebby Hardy on drums—along with Jerome Green on maracas (the same guy who did maracas for Bo Diddley) and Willie Dixon on bass. Willie Dixon’s name should sound familiar as well: he was a songwriter for Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. In fact, you might remember the anecdote I shared in episode 7 in which Howlin’ Wolf was always complaining that Dixon wrote better songs for Muddy than for him, so that whenever Dixon wrote a song for Wolf, he would tell him, “I originally wrote this song for Muddy, but I’ll let you have it instead,” which ended any and all complaining from Wolf.

The name “Maybellene” has a couple of origin stories. One of them is, you might remember Berry briefly trained to become a beautician, and some sources do say that Chuck and Leonard basically looked at a nearby makeups case while trying to think up a name for the song…[clip of “maybe she’s born with it…”]…though they changed the spelling a little by swapping the ‘I’ out for an “E.”

Another account says that it was the name of an old cow from nearby where he grew up. Who knows. Considering Berry grew up in a predominantly urban environment, this one is probably just urban legend.

However, the most likely candidate for where the name really came from is this account I am going to quote once again from that NPR article:

As opposed to his blues material, “Leonard Chess was fascinated by another, more upbeat song, "Ida Mae," that Berry had adapted from a traditional country tune called "Ida Red."

Chess was sure the new song could be a hit, but he didn't like the name. It was too rural, and he thought its similarity to "Ida Red" might pose copyright hassles.

"And that was a problem, so nobody could think of a name," pianist Johnnie Johnson says. "We looked up on the windowsill, and there was a mascara box up there with Maybellene written on it. And Leonard Chess said, 'Why don't we name the damn thing "Maybellene"?'"

Whatever the real story is, Maybellene had reached number one on Billboard’s rhythm & blues chart and number five on its Best Sellers in Stores chart by September of 1955.

This next part of the story gets really interesting—and a little dicey.

On modern copies of the music for “Maybellene,” you’ll most likely see just Chuck Berry’s name listed alone as the songwriter. But on older copies of the music, you’ll see two other names given songwriter credit: Alan Freed and Russ Fratto.

This was purely a marketing move on the part of Leonard Chess, who orchestrated this shared writing credit. Leonard knew he had a hit on his hands when he recorded Maybellene, but being a savvy business man, he left nothing to chance and knew how to capitalize on a good thing to make it an even “gooder” thing. So, Chess brought in Alan Freed as a “co-composer” to share writing credits, which would then motivate Freed to promote Maybellene like crazy—which he did. The song got a ton of play time on his show, which helped skyrocket it to popularity more quickly—because, to be fair to Chuck Berry, the song would have climbed the charts no matter what, but with Freed acting as a song-plugger, the process was expedited.

But you all may still be wondering about the Russ Fratto name on that writing credit. It is speculated by some—though I never tracked down any definitive sources or statements that make this more than speculation—that Chess owed money to Fratto and giving the dude writing credit on a hit song so that he could collect royalties was a way of paying him back. And I will admit I am prone to believe that theory because, I mean, c’mon: the guy’s name was Russ Fratto. That’s the most “loan sharky” name I’ve ever heard. (That’s a great example of objective academia right there, right? Judging someone on how their name sounds?)

Anyway, this all worked out great for Chess, Fratto, and Freed. What about Berry?

Though he was surprised at first to see that two other guys whom he didn’t even know personally had somehow wedged themselves into the songwriter credits, Berry also didn’t really care at first. He was just excited to have a hit song on his hands, and the checks that came pouring in were enough to make him very happy. Until, that is, he realized he was also splitting his royalties with these other two guys. That was where it became a problem, and it was something that he would battle in the courts until the 1980s when he FINALLY received sole writing credit for Maybellene. When we get to the Beach Boys, we’ll run into a similar story with their song “Surfin’ USA,” which is in every way but the lyrics a nearly note-for-note copy of Chuck Berry’s song “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

But Berry wouldn’t release “Sweet Little Sixteen” until 1958, so that’s getting ahead of where we are in his story. Getting back to 1955, like I said, he became nearly an over-night success with Maybellene and was quickly invited back into the recording studio to record more country-influenced rhythm & blues.

Thus, in 1956 he released “Roll Over Beethoven,” which reached number 29 on Billboard’s Top 100. This song would be an anthem for the new, growing, underground rock music movement. It put older generations’ artists on notice, not only implying that if composers like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky heard this new sound, they would be rolling over in their graves, but also calling on them to move over and make way for the new sound.

The song’s lyrics also have some easter eggs in them. He talks about “blue suede shoes,” which is a nod to his good friend Carl Perkins—who we will be talking about in another episode—as well as “hey diddle, diddle,” which was a reference to Bo Diddley.

In this context, however, I have to insert here a quick shout out to a 2020 DW documentary called “A World Without Beethoven,” which celebrated the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth by doing a whole documentary that tackled the question of, “what would the music world be like today if there had never been a Beethoven?” This of course allows them to explore the many ways in which Beethoven’s influence has permeated the music world throughout history and even in modern day. In the portion discussing rock music, the documentary demonstrates how the idea of short riffs—which constitute a massive amount of rock repertoire—was a key component to Beethoven’s musical language, and they use, of course, his Fifth Symphony as an example. [example]

It really is compelling how Beethoven was able to create an entire work based on four notes, composed of two discrete pitches, with a simple rhythmic pattern of: short-short-short-looooong. A couple of the rock examples they cite that follow a similar pattern of 4- to 5-note riffs are “Locomotive Breath” by Jethro Tull and “Rock You Like a Hurricane” by the Scorpions. And Beethoven was kind of “rock ‘n’ roll” in a lot of other ways. He was notorious for having a very “stick it to the man” sort of attitude; he also had a somewhat dim view of the popular listening tastes of the general public. When he was asked once why fewer people liked his 8th symphony than some of his previous works, he cynically responded: “Because it’s so much better than the others.” It’s the same argument die-hard Radiohead fans use when people gripe about Kid A and Amnesiac (and I say that not only tongue-in-cheek but also with some self-awareness because I myself use that same argument about why fewer people liked those albums: “Because they’re so much better and you can’t handle the ‘betterness’!”)

Anyway, let’s get back to Chuck. He quickly began touring with various other rock acts, and continued to enjoy Alan Freed’s song-plugging as he was invited to perform frequently in Freed’s various rock ‘n’ roll shows, which, when we cover Freed’s story, you’ll see what a big deal that was.

He continued releasing hits throughout 1957 and ’58: “School Days,” “Rock and Roll Music,” the aforementioned “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and perhaps his best known hit of all: “Johnny B. Goode.”

Something Chuck Berry has always been known for is being able to tell story through his lyrics, and we’re going to spend the bulk of the balance of this episode just talking about his lyrics.

So, first, in “Maybellene,” he tells the story of chasing his unfaithful girlfriend in her Cadillac Coupe DeVille:

Maybellene, why can't you be true?
Oh, Maybellene, why can't you be true?
You done started doing the things you used to do

As I was motorvatin' over the hill (notice his word-play there)
I saw Maybellene in a Coupé de Ville
A Cadillac a-rollin on the open road
Nothin' will outrun my V-8 Ford
The Cadillac doin' 'bout 95
She bumper to bumper, rollin' side by side

Maybellene, why can't you be true?
Oh, Maybellene, why can't you be true?
You done started back doin' the things you used to do

The Cadillac pulled up at 104
The Ford got hot and wouldn't do no more
It done got cloudy and started to rain
I tooted my horn for the passin' lane
The rain water blowin' all under my hood
I knew that wasn't doin' my motor good

And then the chorus with the bit about “Maybellene, why can’t you be true?” followed by a final verse in which the song’s protagonist never does catch his girl. But there’s a lot happening in this song. I’ll quote from Wegman’s NPR article again:

“At a mere two minutes and 18 seconds, the song embodied the sexual tensions of a generation or, as Berry's producer put it, ‘the big beat, the cars and young love; it was a trend and we jumped on it.’”

Berry knew how to market his music. He was the first black rock artist to find national success—even more than Fats Domino. Again, I like how Wegman put it: “Berry was more careful with his own image, making his diction, as he described it, harder and whiter.” However, while this helped him find a lot of success he may not have otherwise enjoyed, Johnnie Johnson—Berry’s pianist—“remember[ed] that this could cause problems on the road.” Once more borrowing from Wegman:

"I mean, people that never seen it, after the record come out and such a big hit and we went on this tour, not knowing — you know, never seeing a picture or nothing of Chuck, they mistook it that Chuck was white. And we would walk out on the stage, there'd be a lot of ohs and aahs and whatever because he's a black man playing hillbilly music."

Sometimes Berry didn't make it as far as the stage. Showing up for a scheduled concert one night in Knoxville, Tenn., he was turned away at the door. The show's organizers explained, "It's a country dance, and we had no idea that 'Maybellene' was recorded by a Negro man." Berry returned to his car and listened as a white replacement band played his music.”

Brutal, right? Can you understand why black artists were extra sensitive when seeing their material covered by white artists? At every turn it felt like they were being sidelined because of their skin color, while their cultural product was being celebrated and exploited by the same white majority that was refusing to allow them—as Langston Hughes famously wrote in his poem “I, Too”—a place at the table.

Despite the obstacles, Chuck Berry continued to craft his music towards his predominantly youthful audience. Like, check out some of the lyrics for his song “Sweet Little Sixteen”:

Watch her look at her run, boy

Oh, mommy, mommy
Please, may I go?
It's such a sight to see
Somebody steal the show
Oh, daddy, daddy
I beg of you
Whisper to mommy
It's all right with you

'Cause they'll be rockin' on Bandstand
In Philadelphia, P.A.
Deep in the heart of Texas
And 'round the Frisco Bay
All over St. Louis
Way down in New Orleans
All the cats wanna dance with
Sweet Little Sixteen

Another great example of his lyrics that acted as overt marketing to his teen audience comes from “School Days”:

Up in the mornin' and out to school
The teacher is teachin' the golden rule
American history and practical math
You studyin' hard and hopin' to pass
Workin' your fingers right down to the bone
And the guy behind you won't leave you alone

Ring, ring goes the bell
The cook in the lunch room's ready to sell
You're lucky if you can find a seat
You're fortunate if you have time to eat
Back in the classroom, open your books
Keep up the teacher, don't know how mean she looks

Soon as three o'clock rolls around
You finally lay your burden down
Close up your books, get out of your seat
Down the halls and into the street
Up to the corner and 'round the bend
Right to the juke joint, you go in

Drop the coin right into the slot
You're gotta hear somethin' that's really hot
With the one you love, you're makin' romance
All day long you been wantin' to dance
Feeling the music from head to toe
Round and round and round you go

And finally, “Johnny B. Goode” is probably the best example of Berry’s story-telling through his lyrics. I’ll share just the verses without the “go, Johnny, go” choruses:

Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play a guitar just like a-ringin' a bell

He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack
Go sit beneath the tree by the railroad track
Oh, the engineers would see him sitting in the shade
Strumming with the rhythm that the drivers made
The people passing by they would stop and say
"Oh my what that little country boy could play"

His mother told him "someday you will be a man
And you will be the leader of a big old band
Many people coming from miles around
To hear you play your music when the sun go down
Maybe someday your name will be in lights
Saying "Johnny B. Goode tonight"

So, whether he was telling the story of a teenage girl begging her parents to go to a rock ‘n’ roll show, or a kid’s daily life in school, or the tale of a guitar legend from a log cabin in the deep south, Berry’s lyrics were purposefully innocuous. His output, though, is an interesting reflection of racial attitudes throughout the decades and what an artist like him felt he could get away with. Thus far, in this podcast, I’ve discussed how Chuck Berry cultivated a relatively “clean-up” brand of rock music in order to bypass many of the obstacles a black rock artist faced during the 1950s. However, a novelty song he would release in 1972 called “My Ding-a-Ling” shows that just a decade-and-a-half later, he felt he could get away with a lot more. The song “My Ding-a-Ling” is hokum blues, full stop—even if the music itself isn’t necessarily “bluesy,” the song nevertheless carries on that tradition without any doubt whatsoever. I’ll share with you a few excerpts of the lyrics to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

When I was a little bitty boy
My grandmother bought me a cute little toy
Silver bells hanging on a string
She told me it was my ding-a-ling-a-ling,

Once I was climbing the garden wall
I slipped and had a terrible fall
I fell so hard I heard bells ring
But held on to my ding-a-ling-a-ling

Hmm, once I was swimming 'cross turtle creek
Man, them snappers all around my feet
Sure was hard swimming 'cross that thing
With both hands holding my ding-a-ling

I don’t think it’s any mystery what he’s really referring to when he’s singing about his “ding-a-ling.” There are a number of places in the song where he refers to playing with his ding-a-ling, or wanting someone else to play with his ding-a-ling—all of which may seem funny when viewed in isolation, but as we get into Chuck Barry’s later history, those lyrics become a little less cute.

However, that’s where we’re going to leave off on Chuck’s story for now. But I want to continue exploring this country-influence vein of early rock music, so next episode we’ll pick up with Bill Haley’s story, plus a few other artists that likewise brought the country flavor into rock music, so be sure to follow me @deeptrackspodcast on Instagram so you’ll know the very moment—nay, the very nanosecond—the next epic episode of Deep Tracks will drop!

And until that blessed day, keep it deep!

Show notes coming soon!  I promise!