Hello there! In this week’s blog post, we will review the Western Swing song Ida Red, performed by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. We will then discuss Chuck Berry’s great ‘roots’ rock song Maybellene, which was originally titled Ida Red, and we will finish up with Johnny Rivers’ cover of Maybellene.
Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Ida Red:
Bob Wills was a bandleader and fiddle player who grew up on a cotton farm in Texas. His father had been a state champion fiddle player. Wills apparently picked up an interest in the blues from African-American workers who picked cotton on his farm, and also from playing fiddle in minstrel shows early in his career. Wills became known as the “King of Western Swing” along with his band, the Texas Playboys, which he organized in 1934.
Here is a photo of Bob Wills with two of his trademarks: his fiddle and his cigar.
Wills’ band was interesting in that it picked up musical influences from many different styles. In addition to country music and the blues, Wills’ band also incorporated music from jazz and big-band sources. The title “Western Swing” was used to distinguish it from the standard country music, which at that time was classified as “Hillbilly Music” in the Billboard music reviews. In addition to the classic elements of western swing (piano, guitar, drums, steel guitar, banjo and bass), Wills also added a horn section.
In the mid-30’s the band operated out of Tulsa, where it would broadcast a noon-hour show every weekday and play at a local ballroom in the evenings. Their song New San Antonio Rose sold a million copies.
After leaving the army in 1943, Wills moved his band to Los Angeles, where they attracted a large following of people who had moved to LA from Oklahoma and Texas during the Depression and Dust Bowl years. In addition to regular appearances on radio and live shows in Southern California, Wills also appeared in a number of Hollywood Western movies.
Wills and his band then became national sensations. They appeared on Grand Ole Opry, where they were real trailblazers. They may have been the first Opry act to use drums, and they were one of the first bands at the Opry to feature electric guitar.
At the height of their popularity, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys were broadcasting on powerful California radio networks with an enormous geographic reach, and could fill up even the largest ballrooms at live dances. This continued until the early 50’s when changing tastes and the appearance of rock ‘n roll cut into Wills’ fan base.
Here is a live performance of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys doing Ida Red, apparently in 1951.
The song features Bob Wills on violin, with additional short solos on piano, steel guitar and electric guitar accompanied by the occasional wisecrack from Wills. This is classic Western swing, and you can see why the music was so appealing at live dances. The influences from jazz are less obvious here, although the band apparently played both jazz and Dixieland music in addition to Western swing.
Well, once Western swing lost its popularity to new music like rock and roll, the audiences dried up, but Wills’ drinking didn’t. A long-time binge drinker, Wills began missing more and more appearances. Some bad investments strained his finances, and two heart attacks and a stroke in the 60’s essentially ended his performing career.
Wills died in 1975, but his music inspired a whole generation of country performers, notably Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. His influence carried farther afield, as Fats Domino stated that the rhythm section in his early band was copied from the Texas Playboys. Even Jimi Hendrix claimed to have been impressed listening to Wills’ guitarists on Grand Ole Opry broadcasts. In 1999, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys were inducted as “early influences” into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Chuck Berry and Maybellene:
We have encountered Chuck Berry in our blog posts on Back in the USA and also Sweet Little Sixteen. Charles Anderson “Chuck” Berry is one of the greatest rock ‘n roll pioneers. Growing up in St. Louis, he quickly became interested in rhythm and blues, and he began performing with a trio headed by pianist Johnnie Johnson.
Here is a publicity photo of Chuck Berry from 1958.
The genesis of Maybellene is one of the iconic stories in the history of rock music. Chuck Berry’s band had established a strong regional reputation, which earned Chuck an 1955 audition with Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Chuck opened his audition with a series of blues songs.
The Chess brothers had no interest in adding Chuck to their stable of blues singers – after all, they already had artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. The audition was proceeding so poorly that apparently Chuck was asked “Why don’t you play us your worst song?”
At that point, Chuck and the boys broke into one of their ‘black hillbilly’ tunes. In their performances at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis, the Johnnie Johnson Trio would occasionally mix country songs into their playlist of blues and ballads, an innovation that turned out to be quite popular with their fans.
Although the song was Chuck’s own composition, he called it Ida Red after the popular Bob Wills tune. The producer urged Berry to record it, but to change the title. In Chuck’s autobiography, he claims to have named it after a cow he remembered! Whether or not you believe this story, Maybellene was released in 1955 and became Chuck Berry’s first big hit, making it to #1 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts.
Maybellene describes the singer’s reaction when he encounters his girlfriend in “a Cadillac rollin’ on the open road.” Although she is traveling very fast, eventually he overtakes her after an epic chase.
Maybellene, why can’t you be true?
Oh Maybellene, why can’t you be true?
You’ve started back doing the things you used to do.
As I was motorvatin’ over the hill
I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville.
A Cadillac a-rollin’ on the open road,
Nothin’ will outrun my V-8 Ford.
The Cadillac doin’ ’bout ninety-five,
She’s bumper to bumper rollin’ side by side.
The song Maybellene set Chuck Berry off and running into rock music history. He and his backing musicians, featuring Johnnie Johnson on piano and blues great Willie Dixon on upright bass, released a string of hit records, all following the same basic formula. The songs featured Chuck’s rapid-fire lyrics that painted a vivid word-picture. This was combined with his signature guitar riffs, which became standards for rock guitarists.
So here are a couple of live videos of Chuck Berry performing Maybellene.
This first clip is apparently from a 1958 performance in Europe, where he is introduced as a “blues artist.” Chuck seems to have booked a European orchestra with no comprehension whatsoever of rock music. At the beginning, you can almost see the guitar player thinking, “What the hell key are we playing in?” The average age of the audience appears to be over 40, and they sit in bemused silence as Chuck struts and duck-walks across the stage.
This is typical of the older generation’s reaction to rock ‘n roll – they did not get any part of it. The music seemed crude and amateurish, the beat which was so infectious to teenagers tended to leave their parents cold, and it all seemed more embarrassing than exciting. The clip has historical interest as this is a relatively young Chuck Berry (he’s then in his early 30’s) performing just three years after his first hit record.
Chuck Berry frequently toured without a band. This saved him money as he could just hire a local group and pay them a pittance. It was not unusual for Chuck to show up immediately before a performance and tell the musicians “Just follow me.” Not surprisingly, this led to some really crappy live performances, and considerable unhappiness on the part of the audience.
Here’s a second live Chuck Berry performance of Maybellene. This is from a Midnight Special Live TV show in 1973.
The song also features Berry’s legendary duck-walk, one of the master showman’s signature moves. Chuck is 15 years older than in the earlier clip, but here he has an excellent backing band, plus an appreciative audience that digs rock ‘n roll.
Chuck had a keen understanding of the irony that, as a 30-year old black ex-con, he was writing songs and selling records primarily to an audience of middle-class white teenagers. But regardless of this, Chuck’s lyrics were terrific, and his songs effectively conveyed to his teen audiences the joys and frustrations of growing up in America.
Johnny Rivers and Maybellene:
John Ramistella grew up in Baton Rouge, LA. While still in high school he started to form his own bands, singing and playing guitar. His striking talent got him noticed by legendary DJ Alan Freed, at the time probably the most influential figure in rock and roll. Freed advised Ramistella to change his name to Johnny Rivers (presumably after the Mississippi River, which flowed through Baton Rouge).
After changing his name, Johnny Rivers proceeded to work his way through clubs in the South. He supplemented his income from playing by writing songs. His first big break came when fellow Louisiana native and guitar legend James Burton recommended one of Rivers’ songs to Ricky Nelson.
For several years Rivers performed but achieved very little success, and he eventually decided to dedicate himself more or less full time to songwriting. He moved to LA in 1961, where he continued to do session work in studios, and to take gigs at clubs.
Here’s a photo of Johnny Rivers performing live at the Hollywood Palace in May 1966.
Rivers’ big break came in 1964, when he signed a contract to open at a new bar, the Whisky a Go Go on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. There he attracted an enthusiastic following, as the Whisky a Go Go became an LA equivalent of New York’s Peppermint Lounge. This was an important first step in making LA a scene and center of rock music that could rival New York.
The most influential West Coast rock music producer, Lou Adler, released an album of his act titled Johnny Rivers Live at the Whisky a Go Go. The album was a surprising hit, making it all the way to #12 on the Billboard album list.
This was a major feat for Rivers, as it occurred right at the beginning of the British Invasion, when groups like the Beatles and Stones were wiping out most American pop groups. But Rivers managed to hold his own, at least in part because he chose the same music as the British Invasion bands: he covered primarily black American blues, R&B and ‘roots’ rock and roll groups.
Rivers subsequently had a number of hits covering this music, with a few folk songs thrown in. He had major hits with Chuck Berry’s Memphis and Maybellene, together with Mountain of Love and Midnight Special.
Here is a live performance by Johnny Rivers in September 1964, on the TV show Shindig.
This is actually a medley of two songs, Maybellene followed by Memphis. Here Rivers shows off his technical mastery on the guitar, and the live stage presence that made him such a hit on the LA club circuit. We also observe that the set designer appears to have an obsession with ladders.
One of Rivers’ big hits was the 1966 release Secret Agent Man, a song whose lyrics are widely mispronounced (many believe that the title is “Secret Asian Man”). The song was played with the opening credits to the TV series Secret Agent, which aired from 1964 to 1966. The tune also appears in one of Mike Myers’ Austin Powers movies.
Rivers churned out a number of pop hits during the 70s. While many of his songs were covers from other groups, he also had a few hits of his own. Rivers then branched out a second career as a music producer. He was associated with a few new record labels, and apparently was a supportive mentor to a number of young artists.
Johnny Rivers continues to tour even today, some 60 years after he began in the music business. He now focuses on the blues, the music that initially inspired him. Rivers is one of the few artists who owns the copyright to his own songs (rather than having a record company or producer own the rights), and he must have done pretty well financially, with
9 Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 and 17 in the Top 40 from 1964 to 1977; he has sold well over 30 million records.
Although Johnny Rivers has been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame several times, he has yet to be inducted.