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(Above: Los Lobos merge an original with a Neil Young classic on the steps of the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Mo. on September, 17, 2004.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Los Lobos made one point abundantly clear during their opening number, a nearly 10-minute romp through “The Neighborhood”: these boys came to play. One of the most versatile, dynamic and enduring bands going outdid themselves Friday night in front of a sold-out crowd at Knuckleheads. The set was a potent mix of old favorites, new tracks, covers and a mini-set of classic Spanish material in the vein of the band’s “La Pisotla y el Corazon” EP.

Louie Perez, Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo formed a triple-guitar threat across the front of the stage, but no one seemed to be having more fun than bass player Conrad Lozano, who performed with a perpetual grin throughout the night.Great weather contributed to the celebratory atmosphere. Slightly less than 1,000 fans packed Knucklehead’s patio and spilled into the road, which had been blocked off in front of the venue. “I Walk Alone,” “Main Street” and “Chuco’s Cumbia” were early high points of a set that stretched more than two hours – a half-hour longer than the 90-minute sets the group has typically delivered in previous Kansas City tour stops.

Hidalgo hopped behind the drums during “Don’t Worry Baby” but returned to his guitar for a rousing tribute to Buddy Holly. The Bo Diddley beat of “Not Fade Away” had nearly died when Hidlago resurrected the groove with a reading of “Bertha” that sounded more like the Allman Bros. Band than the Grateful Dead. The players finally shed their instruments, but quickly returned with two new musicians in tow – Juan-Carlos Chaurand and Enrique Chi from the local opening band Making Movies.

The headliners were more than hospitable during the 25-minute encore, giving both Chaurand and Chi several lengthy solos and letting them trade licks (and more than hold their own) with their heroes. The pair was ready to politely secede the stage after each number, only to have Hidalgo motion to stick around for a little more fun.

Everyone had nearly left the stage when Hidalgo kept stubbornly strumming, hinting at the opening lick of “La Bamba” and sending everyone scurrying back to their instruments. When Perez rolled into “Good Lovin’” a stream of female dancers filled the stage and the crowd carried the vocals, obscuring the boundaries between performers and audience. The medley reached a natural endpoint several times, but the band kept playing, trading solos and smiles.

Setlist: The Neighborhood; Yo Canto; On Main Street; I Walk Alone; Emily; Come On, Let’s Go; Chuco’s Cumbia; Burn It Down; Tin Can Trust; Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes; Chains Of Love; Let’s Say Goodnight; Ay Te Dejo enSan Antonio; Volver, Volver; She’s About a Mover (with David Hidalgo on drums); Don’t Worry Baby; Not Fade Away > Bertha. Encore (with Enrique Chi and Juan-Carlos Chaurand from Making Movies): Cumbia Raza; Mas y Mas; La Bamba > Good Lovin’ > La Bamba.

Keep reading:

Review: Los Lobos (2008)

Review: Alejandro Escovedo

Buckwheat Brings It Back Home

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(Above: Bruce Springsteen isn’t even close to being the biggest legend onstage in this historic performance of “I Saw Her Standing There” from 1987.)

By Joel Francis

“Rock Hall Live,” an exquisite nine DVD box set of performances and speeches from the past 25 years of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies is a treasure trove for all music fans, but it should especially attractive to Bruce Springsteen fans. Springsteen appears on all but two of the discs in more than a dozen performances and nearly as many speeches. As the unofficial MC of the collection, Springsteen makes more appearances than anyone else.

The Daily Record previously reviewed “Rock Hall Live.” On Monday and Friday of this week it will examine every Springsteen performance on the collection. Although these performances are scattered throughout the box set, we will look at them in chronological order. On Wednesday, The Daily Record will review Springsteen’s concert at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. (NOTE: Tuesday’s concert was cancelled because of the death of Springsteen’s cousin and road manager. On Wednesday The Daily Record will discuss Stevie Wonder’s 1968 hit “For Once in My Life.”)

1987 – “(Oh) Pretty Woman” (with Roy Orbison)

The footage from these early inductions – 1987 heralded the Hall’s second class of members – is shaky and the audio is questionable at best. Surrounded by Bo Diddley, Smokey Robinson, B.B. King, Carl Perkins and scores of other music legends, and awestruck Springsteen pays tribute to the man he immortalized in the lyrics to “Thunder Road.” Springsteen is so excited he forgets the song in a couple places, but his joy at being able to celebrate with Roy Orbison is infectious. Two years later, Orbison was gone and Springsteen paid him another tribute by performing “Crying” at that year’s ceremony.

1988 – “I Saw Her Standing There” (with Mick Jagger and the Rock Hall Jam Band)

It takes the cameraman a few moments to find the vocalist amongst the throng of performers onstage, but the camera finally lands on Billy Joel, belting out the first verse from the peanut gallery. Mick Jagger takes the second verse with an assist from George Harrison. Somewhere onstage, Ringo Starr is one of several happy drummers, making the occasion the closest thing to a Beatles reunion to happen until the Anthology project. (Paul McCartney was feuding with Harrison and Starr at the time and opted not to attend.) After a guitar solo from Jeff Beck, Springsteen finally gets the mic for the third verse. Despite forgetting a few of the words, he exuberantly finishes the number with Jagger.

1988 – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (with Mick Jagger and the Rock Hall Jam Band)

In his 2004 speech inducting Jackson Browne to the Rock Hall, Springsteen says he wishes he’d written “Satisfaction.” Sixteen years earlier, Springsteen realized part of his dream by performing the number with half of its authors. Surrounded by John Fogerty, Bob Dylan, Harrison, Beach Boy Mike Love, Jeff Lynne, Tina Turner, Ben E. King and keytar-rocking band leader Paul Schaffer, Springsteen trades lines with Jagger on the chorus. Sporting a gray suit and bolo tie and backed by E Street drummer Max Weinberg somewhere in the swarm, Springsteen is little more than a vocal prop in this chaotic number.

1993 – “Green River,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain” (all with John Fogerty and Robbie Robertson)

Springsteen plays rhythm guitar and adds backing vocals to this trio of Creedence Clearwater Revival classics. Still upset at his former CCR band mates, John Fogerty refuses to perform with Doug Clifford and Stu Cook. The tension between the three is evident during the acceptance speech, but it completely dissolves once Fogerty straps on his guitar and steps behind the mic. The songs don’t really need three guitarists, but Springsteen is elated to be performing with yet another idol and happy to let Robbie Robertson and Fogerty do all the heavy lifting. There is also rehearsal footage of Springsteen, Fogerty, Robertson and bass player Don Was playing around with different arrangements. Robertson is clearly in charge of the ensemble and again Springsteen seems content to observe. Springsteen does jump into action, however, to work out the harmony vocal line with Fogerty and to successfully lobby for the inclusion of “Green River.”

1994 – “Come Together” (with Axl Rose)

This is a bad idea on paper and it’s even worse onstage. Springsteen looks stiff, sharply strumming a black Stratocaster that matches his tuxedo. A few paces away, Axl Rose more relaxed wearing jeans and flannel as he bobs and weaves like a snake hearing some inaudible flute. This isn’t a duet so much as two performers doing the same song in a shared space. Rose’s voice is fine in its own context, but it’s rarely complementary. His performance here is so grating it makes one long for Aerosmith’s version (shudder). Springsteen seems relieved when the song finally ends.

Keep reading:

Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part 2)

Review: Boss is Bigger than Big 12 Tourney (2008)

Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello – “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

Review: Springsteen’s “Dream” Needs More Work

Springsteen in the Waiting Room: Drop the Needle and Pray

New DVD Set Celebrates Rock Hall Performances

More Bruce Springsteen in The Daily Record

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(Above: Sly and Robbie drop heavy riddim at Red Rocks in 2008.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

If Robbie Shakespeare’s job as a musician fizzles, he could probably make a living bringing down buildings. Alongside rhythm partner Sly Dunbar, Shakespeare’s bass rattled the foundations of the Folly Theater for nearly two hours Saturday night.

Backed by the four-piece Taxi Gang, Sly and Robbie delivered their signature reggae sound, which has appeared on literally tens of thousands of records, encompassing everyone from Bob Dylan to Peter Tosh.

The night started with an instrumental that exceeded 20 minutes in which the musicians passed solos like a jazz combo. As the trombone and saxophone bridged the gap between Afro-beat and ska, the keyboards and guitar subliminally sparkled underneath. When the guitarist popped to the forefront he delivered solos that recalled Carlos Santana, displayed Eddie Van Halen’s two-finger tapping and went Jacques Cousteau on his wah peddle for a solo that sounded like it was played underwater.

Though they politely shared the spotlight, Sly and Robbie were never far from the forefront. Robbie’s bass was so loud it drowned out most of the vocals and probably registered on the Richter scale. Sly’s drums sat neatly on top, crisp, precise and articulate. Their playing wasn’t flashy, but their grooves spoke volumes.

The Folly was half-full at best, but the band worked the room like it was packed. Putting down his horn, the trombone player paced the stage leading the crowd in call and response. He delivered a great cover of LeRoy Smart’s “Ballistic Affair,” which featured Sly and Robbie on the original 1976 recording, and drew the biggest applause of the night with a reading of Bob Marley’s “Rastaman Chant.” The sextet slowed that number ever so slightly, accentuating the song’s gospel elements.

Though their playing was engaging, the music did get a little samey after about an hour. The echo-laden drums and behind-the-beat accompaniment typical of deep dub only hold so much room for exploration. Fortunately, a surprise appearance from singer Peter Gayle rescued the set.

Acting as if there were a secret ordinance against standing still, Gayle was constantly kicking his feet along with the beat, twirling his long dreadlocks or suggestively swinging his hips. His G-rated cover of Webbie’s “I Miss You” excited the crowd and the energy stayed high after he was gone.

The concert was part of the “Cypress Avenue Live at the Folly” series, and came just one night after the ensemble’s performance at the Wakarusa Music Festival in its new home at Ozark, Ark.

The band opened their encore set with a cover of Tex Ritter’s Oscar winning ““High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me).” Robbie said this was their first time performing the number and the arrangement was little more than his vocals and Sly pounding out the Bo Diddley beat on his bass drum. They closed with “Welcome to Jamrock,” which after several minutes somehow morphed into a gentle jazz saxophone solo. After saying good night, half the ensemble left the stage. Seemingly oblivious, the saxophone and keyboard players and guitarist played on, lost in the rhythm.

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The last time The Daily Record watched a complete Grammy Awards show, “O Brother Where Art Thou?” won Album of the Year. This year, though, we got suckered in by the promise of seeing Radiohead. (Have they won a Grammy? Wikipedia says yes.) This presented the perfect opportunity to do one of those running diaries like Bill Simmons does for ESPN. We not may be as successful, but the official wife of The Daily Record was glad her husband’s snarky comments were bypassing her ears and going straight online, where she could ignore them more easily. Enjoy!

7:00 U2’s new song sounds like Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

7:02 The lyrics to their new song “Get On Your Boots” appear on a large video screen behind the band. I wonder if this is what all the presenters will see on their Teleprompters.

7:09 Whitney Houston comes out to present the award for “Best R&B Album.” Forget Botox – cocaine must be the secret to a younger looking face.

7:10 Seriously, Houston looks like she has been stored in the freezer next to Ted Williams for the last 10 years.

7:12 The Rock is as good a comedian as he is an actor.

7:17 Justin Timberlake and Keith Urban paying tribute to Al Green is like Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney giving props to Barack Obama.

7:21 First commercial break. High-powered bloggers use this time to make snarky comments about commercials too. Unfortunately, The Daily Record has no corporate sponsorship. We’ll use this time to do glamorous things like take out the trash and recycling, pull stuff together for work tomorrow.

7:26 For a second, I thought Chris Martin was Paul McCartney sitting at his Magical Mystery Tour piano.

7:28 Let the haters hate; Jay-Z is still great.

7:29 How come Coldplay get to play two songs? I wonder if Joe Satriani will come out. Probably not.

7:30 Coldplay’s Beatles motif is reinforced with their Sgt. Pepper jackets.

7:33 Although representatives insist that all Grammy performers will not perform to a backing track like Bruce Springsteen did at last week’s Super Bowl, you have to be suspicious. It’s not like the music industry is a bastion of integrity.

7:34 Why does “country” singer Carrie Underwood rock harder than “rock stars” Coldplay?

7:35 I have no idea what Carrie is singing. I think it’s something about how long it took to get her legs waxed. Damn them’s some shiny gams!

7:36 Carrie’s guitar player looks like Lita Ford’s daughter.

7:38 Why does Sheryl Crow, 46, look younger than LeAnn Rimes, 26?

7:39 Congratulations, you’ve won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. We will now honor you with a 15 second black and white video clip. Why not let the recipients perform?

7:48 Hey, Coldplay just acknowledged my Sgt. Pepper’s joke!

7:49 Man, Kid Rock really, really likes Bob Seger.

7:58 Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus are performing together for the first time, but they won’t let the guys playing acoustic guitars and bass onstage with them.

7:59 It’s really bugging me that they won’t let the band perform onstage. What were they told? “OK, here’s the deal. You four will sing backing vocals, provide rhythm support, fine, you’ll carry the whole thing – but we don’t actually want anyone to see you do it.” Was there not enough crawlspace under the stage to stuff them in there?

8:02 A seated Tylor Swift just said “If you’re 19, or even older, it’s still a thrill to stand on the Grammy stage.” Man, she is going to have a long time to be depressed.

8:03 Robert Plant and Allison Krauss just won AWARD. But even better news is that they’re working on a new album together.

8:05 This is why we don’t need a Whitney Houston comeback. Jennifer Hudson is both more talented and a more substantive person.

8:15 What the? Stevie Wonder is jamming with the Jonas Brothers. Half the audience is wondering who the old dude is and everyone else is wondering what he’s doing playing with them. Thing is, it doesn’t sound half bad. Then again, I’m a sucker for Stevie’s vocoder trick.

8:16 Any excuse to hear “Superstition” is a good thing. I’ll never buy a Jonas Brothers album, but I thank them for this moment.

8:17 Seriously, you know your songs kick butt when Disney-sponsored tweener heart-throbs can’t screw them up. Not even Celine Dion could ruin this moment.

8:19 I hear Blink 182’s next album is going to be a tribute to Def Leppard.

8:20 Do Coldplay have to mention the Beatles every time they take the podium? Pretty soon Ringo will be onstage with them refusing to sign autographs.

8:27 Don’t forget, Craig Ferguson writes all his own material.

8:29 Am I the last person on Earth to be hearing “I Kissed A Girl” for the first time right now?

8:30 Why is Katy Perry dancing in Carmen Miranda’s headdress? This segment must be sponsored by Chiquita.

8:31 Am I the only person on Earth to feel like he hasn’t missed anything by not hearing “I Kissed A Girl” until now?

8:32 I don’t know the song Kanye West is doing with Estelle, but “808s and Heartbreaks” is really growing on me.

8:33 Kanye is taking this ’80s fixation a bit too far. Next year he’s going to come out wearing a Huxtable sweater.

8:41 I don’t care how long he keeps wearing it, that earring is never going to look natural on Morgan Freeman.

8:45 Sean “Puffy” Combs, Natalie Cole and Herbie Hancock are on hand to present “Record of the Year.” One of these things is not like the other (in a good way).

8:46 Natalie Cole’s dress looks like a last-minute compromise from the outfit Lil Kim wore on the MTV awards a few years back.

8:47 Plant and Krauss just won again. Robert Plant might have the most successful post-supergroup career of all time. OK, maybe Paul McCartney – but Plant’s taken more chances.

8:53 They just gave a Lifetime Achievement Award to Dean Martin. I guess we now know why they don’t have these winners perform, but why’d the take him so long for Martin to get this award? He’s been dead for awhile, but he certainly had the sales and popularity when he was alive. Maybe next year they’ll finally get around to honoring Bing Crosby.

8:54 I’m not sure why M.I.A. had to secede the stage so quickly. How cool would it have been if Mick Jones and Paul Simonon came out to do “Paper Planes” with her?

8:55 Kanye, Jay-Z, T.I. and Lil Wayne’s performance together is being called a “historic hip hop summit.” The tour kicks off next month in Yalta.

8:57 M.I.A.’s polka-dot pregnancy outfit is sponsored by Buddy Guy’s guitar.

9:00 I can’t believe I’ve sat through two hours of this show … and still have 90 minutes to go.

9:01 If I were going to have Dave Grohl drum with Paul McCartney I’d give him something a little meatier than “I Saw Her Standing There.” Maybe “Band on the Run” or “Helter Skelter.” I’m just saying.

9:10 Feed just went out as John Mayer was accepting an award. I guess my TV isn’t much of a fan either.

9:11 Jay Mohr and LL Cool J is one of the most awkward pairings of the night. Then again, Jay Morh and anyone is an awkward arrangement.

9:15 Sugarland and Adele aren’t really performing “together for the first time” as promised, but “one right after another.” Eh.

9:17 Oh, here’s Sugarland. She added that one essential line at the end of the song.

9:23 Gwyenth Paltrow is wearing a mirror ball. Dance party!

9:24 Radiohead is performing with the USC Marching Trojans. Man, first those guys get to play with Fleetwood Mac and now they’re backing up Radiohead. I wonder which was more rewarding.

9:25 Someday, future generations will worship Radiohead like we celebrate the Beatles.

9:27 Is it still Radiohead when it’s just Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood? Survey says, who cares? Radiohead in any form is better than anything else we’ve seen tonight.

9:28 OK, better than everything except Carrie Underwood’s legs – but I’m still not buying her album.

9:30 If you are still reading this, you are officially my new best friend. Please leave a comment to receive a special prize.

9:34 Justin Timberlake is performing in a coat and scarf. How did he know snow was in our forecast?

9:35 The stocking cap on T.I.’s head looks like a reservoir tip.

9:36 I don’t think switching back and forth between two distinct songs should count as collaboration. It’s more like a musical debate where the listener always loses.

9:38 Recording Academy president Neil Portnow rejected the traditional tirade against music piracy to talk about MusiCares and promote a Secretary of the Arts cabinet position.

9: 42 Portnow is done, but I’m kinda bummed he didn’t bring up piracy. I had a great line to use when he did: “Recording Academy president Neil Portnow is still talking about music piracy. This guy is slower than Rapidshare.”

9:44 Not even Smokey Robinsons sings the Four Tops as well as Levi Stubbs. Rest in peace, Levi.

9:45 It would be cool if the producers rounded up the remaining Funk Brothers as backing musicians for this Four Tops tribute.

9:52 Neil Diamond is singing “Sweet Caroline” and millions of Red Sox fans are crying because their season hasn’t started yet. Pitchers and catchers report in less than a week, boys.

9:54 Am I the only one that finds it kind of sad that Diamond’s expansive catalog has been reduced to just one song? And that “Sweet Caroline” is that song? It’s like if people only remembered Bob Dylan for “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn).”

9:59 Paying tribute to Bo Diddley are Buddy Guy, B.B. King, John Mayer and Keith Urban (because you know if any two performers have influenced Urban’s style and career its Al Green and Bo Diddley). Best rhythm in rock and roll.

10:00 I make that joke earlier about Buddy Guy’s guitar and he shows up here playing a gold top Les Paul. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him rock a since his days on Vanguard.

10:08 Allen Toussaint is supposed to appear with Lil Wayne with Robin Thicke. I bet those two would be surprised to learn that Toussaint has written more hits than both of them combined.

10:10 I wonder why the producers haven’t rolled out one of those “for the first time ever” duets between Thicke and Timberlake? Probably because no one could tell them apart.

10:11 Allen Toussaint with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Terence Blanchard falls just short of topping Radiohead for best musical moment of the night – but it’s close. No American city makes more consistently fun music than New Orleans (although a case could be made for Memphis).

10:14 Will.I.Am just congratulated Obama. Who could have seen that coming? Next year, Will.I.Am will receive a record number of Grammy nominations for his album “Obamania: Songs About Barack Obama, Because I Love Barack Obama by Will.I.Am (for Barack Obama).”

10:24 Robert Plant and Allison Krauss are performing with T-Bone Burnett. Krauss’ hair keeps blowing back. Now I know why Justin Timberlake was wearing a coat and scar earlier.

10:25 I love “Raising Sand” as much as the next person, but that album came out in 2007. Why are the Grammys acting like it’s a new release?

10:26 The Grammys operate on such a loopy nomination calendar that a band’s previous and forthcoming albums can both be eligible at the same time.

10:27 The producers rightly made a big deal of T-Bone being on stage, but there was no mention of Buddy Miller holding down rhythm guitar. Therefore, I’d like to take this moment to give Buddy props for being a spectacular musician.

10:28 Album of the Year goes to “Raising Sand.” If it wasn’t going to be “In Rainbows” this is where it should have gone. (Seriously, does anyone else find it odd that both of these albums were released 16 months ago?)

10:30 Robert Plant started his career in 1968. You can fill a matchbook with a list of all tonight’s performers and honorees we’ll still be talking about 40 years from now.

10:32 Stevie Wonder is playing us home. See you in seven years, Grammys!

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Above: “True Love Ways” is The Daily Record’s favorite Buddy Holly song.

By Joel Francis

Fifty years ago this week, the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper crashed in an Iowa cornfield, claiming its passengers and 22-year-old pilot Roger Peterson.

The event became known as “The Day the Music Died,” but the fact people were still talking about it 12 years later when Don McLean memorialized the moment with the song “American Pie” proves that music indeed survived.

The rock landscape had changed a lot between 1959 and 1971. The pioneers of the rock and roll were having hard time. Chuck Berry had bounced from Chess to Mercury and back and was seven years removed from his most recent Top 40 hit (although the No. 1 “My Ding-A-Ling” was right around the corner). Carl Perkins was performing as a sideman in Johnny Cash’s band and Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino and Bill Haley dismissed as washed up. Only Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis retained a whiff of their ’50s fervor, but it took a televised “comeback” special and a genre hop to country and western for them to manage the trick.

That Holly was not only remembered, but celebrated in the aftermath of Woodstock and Altamont, in an era where rock’s excesses were just starting to steamroll, was not pure nostalgia.

Far from killing rock and roll, Holly planted the seeds that allowed it to flourish. Holly was one of the first artists to recognize the recording studio as creative environment, by experimenting with double-tracking and overdubs. He was the first songwriter to pilfer the Bo Diddley beat for “Not Fade Away.” He was the first rock and roll star to play a Fender Stratocaster, the guitar of choice for Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and countless others.

Although the Beatles often receive credit for being the first group to write their own material and put strings on a rock album, the truth is, Holly did both nearly a decade before them. It’s not a big leap from Holly’s “Raining In My Heart” to McCartney’s “Yesterday.”

But the most amazing of Holly’s feats is that he did it all by 22, an age at which Bob Dylan was just emerging from his Woody Guthrie fixation, Brian Wilson was begging out of tours because of stage fright and Neil Diamond was still trapped in the Brill Building.

Few mourn other ’50s rock casualties, like Eddie Cochran, who died a scant 14 months later, but Holly’s influence continues to be felt today. It’s  in Elvis Costello’s spectacles, Weezer’s Top 5 1994 hit, and the myriad of bands – ranging from the Rolling Stones to the White Stripes to the cover band in the bar around the corner – who regularly drop “Not Fade Away” into their sets.

The day the music died? Not even close.

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bo-diddley

By Joel Francis

After last week’s three-part history of Chess Records, several readers wrote in expressing disgust that Bo Diddley was ignored in the film “Cadillac Records.”

It appears Diddley may be having the last laugh. The New York Post reported yesterday that a deal is underway with Apostle Pictures for a documentary on the late rock and roll godfather.

Margo Lewis of Talent Source, Diddley’s management company, gave the money quote:

“It’s no secret that Bo had real issues with the Chess brothers and their ‘creative accounting practices.’ It was Bo’s recollection that every time he or another performer would go into the Chess offices to ask for their royalties, they were given the keys to a new Cadillac instead. So, in that regard, at least they got the title of the movie right. Regardless, we are completely shocked that the producers would omit such a seminal figure as Bo.”

After watching other Chess stars like Chuck Berry deservedly reap the rewards for their musical innovations, it will be nice when Diddley finally gets his overdue props. Here’s hoping the new film is as good as “The Howlin’ Wolf Story.”

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etta
Above: No, it’s not Beyonce. The wonderful Etta James during her Chess period.

By Joel Francis

As the 1960s dawned on Chess Records, label founders Leonard and Phil were at the peak of their powers. Thanks to the proselytizing of the British Invasion bands, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and other blues artists were performing for the largest crowds of their careers. Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley had helped formed rock and roll, and the label had branched into more genres, including R&B, comedy, jazz and gospel.

But Leonard and Phil were still looking for new ways to stay on top of the trends and build their roster. One of their biggest signings of the decade was an immediate success. The other took more than three decades to reach his commercial potential, but stands today as the greatest living link to Chess and Chicago blues.

Etta James was born in Los Angeles to an unwed, 14-year-old mother. She was discovered at age 14 by bandleader Johnny Otis, and recorded with him for Modern Records in the late 1950s. She signed to Chess in 1960 and converted Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” into an R&B hit. Her breakthrough came the following year with “At Last.” The gorgeous soul ballad was a bit of a departure for the label – guitars and harmonicas were replaced by a lush string orchestra. From the gritty soul of “In the Basement” and “Tell Mama” to the heartache of “I’d Rather Go Blind,” James’ versatile voice found success for the rest of the decade.

Buddy Guy showed up in Chicago in 1957 and quickly fell under the wing of Muddy Waters. Although he was known for his anarchic guitar playing onstage, the Chess brothers reigned him in on record. Primarily a session guitarist, solo singles like “The First Time I Met the Blues” barely hinted at the flamboyant style that influenced Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Guy didn’t find true success until his 1991 comeback album “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” on the Silvertone label.

With the exception of Berry, who briefly recorded for Mercury in the mid-’60s before returning to Chess, and Dixon, who took a short-lived job at Vee-Jay, all of Chess’ major artists stayed with the label until its sale. By the end of the ’60s, Leonard and Phil had been looking for a way to get out of the record business and into television. When GRT made an offer of $6.5 million for all of the label’s properties, they accepted. Less than a year after selling their label, Leonard Chess was dead. Just 52 years old, the elder brother had died of a heart attack in his car less than two blocks from the Chess headquarters. He had been on his way to a meeting at WVON.

A little over twenty years after opening the Mocambo Lounge, Leonard and Phil Chess’ dream of striking it rich had come true several times over. With Leonard no longer alive, it was up to Phil and Marshall, Leonard’s son, to appease the worries from their biggest stars that the brothers had made unreasonable profits off their artists.

While many of the Chess stars were also very well off, other artists showed less financial responsibility and had very little to show for their success. In the 1970s, several Chess artists, including Waters, Wolf and Dixon sued for back royalty payments. All the lawsuits were settled confidentially out of court; the issue is still debated today. Bo Diddley was especially bitter about his treatment, telling Rolling Stone in the 1987, “My records are sold all over the world and I ain’t got a f—ing dime.” While we’ll likely never know the truth, cases of labels withholding royalties from artists are still common today. Leonard and Phil probably felt they took good care of their artists, but they also made sure to take great care of themselves at the same time.

Nearly 40 years after its sale, the legacy of Chess Records continues to burn bright. From bloozy biker bars and hole-in-the-wall BBQ juke joints to stadium tours by the Rolling Stones and samples used by rappers Nas and Chuck D, there are few corners of the English-speaking world where the impact of Chess’ artists isn’t felt. In 1977 NASA gave the label celestial influence when they placed a copy Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” inside the Voyager space probe.

In 1964 the Rolling Stones, hot on their first tour of America, made a pilgrimage to the Chess building at 2120 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago. Decades later, Dixon’s widow purchased the property, which serves as a Chess museum and headquarters for Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. Each year, tourists and musicians alike visit the building to pay homage to the Chess masters and stand in the space where so many incredible songs were captured.

Keep reading The True Story of Cadillac Records.
Part One: The Birth of Chess Records and Chicago Blues
Part Two: Chess Records and the Birth of Rock and Roll

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