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PHOTO ESSAY

The Blues

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Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry (1957). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Its utter mutability and willingness to fuse with new styles allowed the blues to survive as long as it had, but the simultaneous pulls of rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues ultimately proved too disruptive. The first significant break occurred in 1955, after Chuck Berry released "Maybellene" on Chess Records. Berry—whose idol was Muddy Waters—incorporated several classic blues traits in the song, including call-and-response and 12-bar style, but its hurried drumbeat and "ripping guitar solo" (O'Brien) made it clear that Berry was on to something far beyond the scope of his idol. With the blessing of influential DJ Alan Freed, "Maybellene" was marketed under the banner of "rock 'n' roll." Somewhat freed of the overt racial associations implied by blues recordings, Berry, with the aid of Freed—who, it would later be revealed, accepted bribes from Chess in exchange for his activism—became a smashing success on mainstream (white) radio, and "Maybellene" became the first rock 'n' roll song to make the Billboard Top Ten. Soon after rock 'n' roll came rhythm and blues, a term intended to "distinguish up-tempo music recorded exclusively by black artists from rock music recorded by whites" (Wynne). The founding of Motown, the country's most successful music factory and at one point the most valuable black-owned corporation in the country, cemented the popularity of rhythm and blues—and helped render the blues even more irrelevant.

O'Brien, Timothy J. "Berry, Chuck." In Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century, edited by Paul Finkelman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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