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May 1: Chuck Berry and Leonard Chess

May 1, 2014
53DLeonard Chess (Lejzor Czyż) signed 28-year-old Chuck Berry to a contract with Chess Records on this date in 1955. Chess and his two brothers, all emigrés from Poland, were already promoting the electric Chicago Blues sound with such artists as Muddy Waters, Etta James, and Howlin’ Wolf. Berry, from St. Louis, was on a vacation in Chicago when he met Muddy Waters, who urged him to visit the Chess brothers. Berry’s audition song was “Ida Red,” which Leonard and Phil renamed “Maybellene.” (Some music historians consider it to be a rewritten, hepped-up version a country swing song by Bob Wills.) “Maybellene,” often called the first rock and roll song in the world, sold over a million copies. Berry produced numerous hits for Chess, including “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Memphis,” and other songs that were true “crossover” successes (white singers seemed unable to steal Berry’s material). His guitar style was foundational to rock and roll’s monster acts, from the Beach Boys to the Rolling Stones. Chuck Berry was one of the first ten inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its initial year, 1986; Leonard Chess was inducted the following year. To see Chuck Berry rolling over Beethoven, look below. To see Bob Wills’ version of “Ida Red,” look below that. “Rock’s so good to me. Rock is my child and my grandfather.” -Chuck Berry