John Lennon once famously said that “if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.'” That’s how foundational Berry’s contributions were to the music that changed America and the world beginning in the mid-1950s. Even more than Elvis Presley, who was an incomparable performer, but of other people’s songs, Chuck Berry created the do-it-yourself template that most rock-and-rollers still seek to follow. If there can be said to be a single day on which his profound influence on the sound and style of rock and roll began, it was this day in 1955, when an unknown Chuck Berry paid his first visit to a recording studio and cut the record that would make him famous: “Maybellene.”
Berry was a part-time professional musician in his native St. Louis and primarily a performer of the blues, but an avid experimenter with other sounds. On a visit to Chicago in May 1955, Berry approached his idol, the great bluesman Muddy Waters, to ask for career advice. Waters pointed him in the direction of his record label, Chess Records, where Berry managed a face-to-face meeting with Leonard Chess and an invitation to return for an audition later that week. When Berry returned, he hoped that Chess would sign him on the strength of one of his blues numbers, but it was a strange rhythm-and-blues/country-western hybrid called “Ida Red” that caught Chess’s ear. Before it was recorded, “Ida Red’ got new lyrics to go with a new title—”Maybellene”—but it retained the totally original sound that Berry had given it.