I’ll never forget first hearing “Maybellene.” It wasn't the Chuck Berry version.
I had the Ralph Marterie single. (Gerry and the Pacemakers did it much later, probably hunting for a Berry song they could lift the way The Beatles took "Roll Over Beethoven.") If you’re thinking Ralph's another Pat Boone white guy doing a dumbed-down cover, just listen. Like another Italian jazz man, Louis Prima, Marterie had a pretty hip voice. In the mid-50’s hip and hep were finding common ground with "cats" like Louis Jordan turning in numbers that could easily be considered early rock and roll.
Before he jumped on “Maybellene” (note the spelling, different from the cosmetic company), Ralph had scored with a cover of Bill Haley’s “Crazy, Man, Crazy.” He managed to get that one into the Top 20. “Maybellene” zoots him well. (In later years, Ralph tended to stay away from the microphone and just play his trumpet, fronting his big band).
The other day, Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen (among others) were quoted with their tributes to the late Chuck Berry. “Boss” Springsteen declared: “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ’n’ roll writer who ever lived." Not the first time Broooose has been full of shit. He's overrated, too. MASSIVELY. The truth is, Berry was among the pioneers of rock (along with Little Richard, Bill Haley and then Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly) but what they all have in common is most people don't listen to 'em much anymore. Oh, there's still Elvis fetishists, but most people over 40 listen to The Beatles, The Who and The Rolling Stones and others who fleshed out those primitive rockin' bones.
Yes, I like a handful of Chuck’s catchy songs, but I haven't played any of 'em in years. And I rarely play cover versions of 'em either. “Maybellene” (1955) has a fun pun about “motorvatin’” over the hill. “School Days” (1957) was beloved by many and was even covered by Phil Ochs. “Memphis, Tennessee” is really just a long way to go for a joke, but it’s spawned many covers as well, including a moody and sincere one from Eleanor McEvoy. You have to like that line about missing the girl with the "hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye." It beats yellow matter custard. Speaking of which, The Beatles of course, covered “Roll Over Beethoven” which Chuck had recorded in 1956. By 1958 (“Rock and Roll Music and “Johnny B. Goode”) Chuck was done. You really want to include ‘My Ding a Ling” from 1972?
Anything else? If you can stand to listen to an entire CD of this guy, OR Little Richard OR Buddy Holly (no racism here, the white guy is just as annoying), then you’re fond of monotony. Three minutes of an old video clip is plenty, too. Little Richard, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis made faces at the piano. Fine for three minutes. Chuck had the infamous “duck walk.” It's still amusing to see once in a while. More amusing than Michael Jackson moonwalking or crotch-grabbing.
Like Jerry Lee Lewis who was “the killer” who liked ‘em young, Chuck Berry had a grim side. Even cadaverous Keith Richards had to admit “Chuck was probably the hardest person I’ve ever had to work with, including Mick Jagger.” Berry spent years in reform school for robbery and car theft. He matched Jerry Lee for creepiness when he was arrested in 1959 and convicted in 1962 for bringing a teen prostitute across state lines. He did 18 months for that. Ala Cosby, Chuck's fame only gave him a license (he felt) to be exploitive. Chuck videotaped himself pissing on some aging white groupie. The blurry video surfaced courtesy of Screw Magazine; they sold it along with a bonus feature showing somebody from The Go-Go's being drunk. In 1989 Chuck was sued by women for having a sneaky hidden camera in his St. Louis restaurant's ladies room. The number of women who got compensation money from Chuck: 74. That’s Berry 74, Cosby 1.
Ornery Berry sued John Lennon because John paid him a tribute and sang “come on flat top” on “Come Together.” Today, Kanye and friends steal whole riffs, whole lines, and get Grammy-nominated for it. Well, let’s say Hail Hail to Chuck, for being the Black Man fighting against abuse from Whitey. In this case, it was the Whitey who almost single-handedly promoted Chuck’s music to Beatles fans all over the world. PS, Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" cops a bit of melody and attitude off the hillbilly tune "Ida Red." Check out Bob Wills' swingy version and you'll agree, but, as Michael Caine would say, "not a lot of people know that."
Goodness gracious me. Have I digressed? Let’s go back to the two main themes. Number one: Ralph Marterie was a good singer, in the mode of Louis Prima or Ray Ellington (Sapristi!). And second, Chuck Berry did write and perform five or six amusing novelty songs. The Coasters performed more than five or six amusing novelty songs, but they languished in oldies shows if they worked at all. Chuck was still being begged to perform and paid big sums for it. Hail hail.
Maybe the obits and all the praise from Jagger and Springsteen etc. will get a few Millennials to appreciate the bare bones brilliance of Mr. Berry. But maybe not. Millennials are assholes, more prone to smirking, “that was before my time, Duuuuuude.” But who knows, somebody under 30 might listen and then sing, “He never mattered much to me, but now I see. Poor Berr-eeee.” (How Lowe do you go!)
Ralph Marterie MAYBELLINE Instant download or listen on line. No Paypal tip jar, no monetizing on this blog, no money or favors earned from the download.