The True Story of Cadillac Records (Part Two): Chess Records and the Birth of Rock and Roll


Above: Musical pioneer Bo Diddley was cruelly excluded from the “Cadillac Records” story.

By Joel Francis

With Willie Dixon feeding steady hits to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and other Chess artists, the label had become a driving force of popular taste less than a decade after it was founded. While blues were the label’s backbone, the Chess brothers had a hand in nearly every facet of African-American music – from doo-wop groups like the Moonglows and Flamingos and jazz pianists Ahmad Jamal and Ramsey Lewis to the comedy styling of Moms Mabley and sermons by Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s father. Starting in 1963, Chess even had its own Chicago radio station, WVON, Voice of the Negro, which is still on the air today.

Chess introduced the world to rock and roll in 1951 when it released Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88.” Four years later, two new Chess artists helped rock and roll grow up in a hurry.

Chuck Berry was discovered by Muddy Waters while on vacation to St. Louis. Berry’s upbeat blues were spiked with country and given a teenage twist. Songs about work became songs about school; his love songs were less dark and more playful. Berry was a poet, capable of packing more syllables per stanza than any other singer. Consider the imagery and complexity in the familiar opening lines Berry’s legendary “Johnny B. Goode:” “Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans/Way back up in the woods among the evergreens.” Berry’s guitar was just as active as his mouth. His quick fingers brought the blues at twice the tempo and his athletic solos made him the first guitar hero.

If Chuck Berry’s souped-up songs took the blues to the teen market in the guise of rock and roll, Bo Diddley’s African rhythms gave them a beat everyone could dance to. Diddley was born Ellas Bates in McComb, Miss. but took the last name McDaniel from his mother’s cousin, Gussie McDaniel, with whom he moved to Chicago as a child in 1934.  Diddley’s songs were downright primitive compared to Berry’s, but no less powerful or influential. His shave-and-a-haircut beat was the backbone for many of his own hits like “Bo Diddley,” and “Who Do You Love,” and countless imitators like Johnny Otis’ “Willie and the Hand Jive” and Bruce Sprinsteen’s “She’s the One.” Diddley produced strange sounds from homemade guitars, while Jerome Green’s maracas fueled the relentless beat. Diddley and Green’s back-and-forth on “Say Man” is one of the earliest recorded raps.

The 1960s were a boon for Chess. New stars like Etta James kept the label at the top of the charts while Chuck Berry was in jail. Rock and roll may have knocked Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf from their perches at the top of the charts, but their old singles found a huge white audience in England. Teenagers who bought guitars to form skiffle bands were suddenly playing Willie Dixon’s songs and ravenous for Chicago’s blues. Dixon obliged them, organizing several annual American Folk Blues Festival tours of Europe. In return, the British Invasion bands brought Chess music back to America with them, introducing white America to the music its dark-skinned brothers and sisters had been enjoying decades. Waters, Wolf and the rest of the Chess stable were suddenly pulled from the chitlin circuit to colleges, theaters and festivals.

Chess responded to the changing marketplace in several ways. Before then, most Chess releases were 45 rpm singles. Now the brothers started packaging their hits together into LP records. Decade-old Sonny Boy Williamson tracks appeared on a “Real Folk Blues” compilation designed to appeal to the hootenanny crowd. Later, classic Waters and Wolf tunes were given psychedelic updates for the Summer of Love.

Keep reading The True Story of Cadillac Records.
Part One: The Birth of Chess Records and the Chicago Blues
Part Three: The Final Days and Legacy of Chess Records


5 thoughts on “The True Story of Cadillac Records (Part Two): Chess Records and the Birth of Rock and Roll

  1. Just saw the story of Cadillac Records 01/02/10. Thought I’d look up bio of story to find the radio call letters “WVON” attached. I was surprised.
    I serched deeper into each article wanting to learn just how much WVON played a part in Cadillac Records and the birth of WVON. Sad to say, even websight of WVON really doesn’t tell everything of it’s own station. I clicked on page lead after lead to find the call letters meaning of W”VON” only to be pushed into other reads not even close to answering my question. Finally, I typed in “Who came up with WVON?” and I found this website, with the explanination of what the call letters mean in WVON…”Voice Of the Negro”. Thank you Mr. Francis for telling this. If you know this, then you also know the person(s) who “coined” this ever so popular used, known and trusted name and service, that has been a house hold staple for information, entertainment, news, as well as prestiege with in and through out Negro homes.
    I am one of the desendants of the person(s) responsable for coining/naming/ W”VON”. My father passed away in May 2002. He loved radio, he used to work for radio station WJOB. He wanted to take it futher, but, faced many obstacles with whites and blacks who saw his color; too dark for white and too light for black, and how he talked; challenging him every step of the way till he let his dreams die and let them go.
    The birth and contribution of many things from the Negro, will always lag behind in reconigition, and those who led the way that are gone now, should never be forgotten. These remarkable gifted unknown or untold souls are the foundation of many inspired “new talent on the scene”.
    Seems like “we” enjoy, is birthed from someone elses suffering. That will only change when truth and acknowledgement prevail and color blind is, “just that”.
    Feel free to contact me if you like. Thank you!!

    1. Bernetta,
      Thank you for reading and for sharing your story. I’m sorry your father faced so many hardships. I am of the wrong generation and geography to have ever heard WVON in its prime, but from what I’ve read, it sounded like a great station. There has been much ink spilled over the dearth of quality on commercial radio. Rightly, even more has been written on the plight of race in America. You must be proud of your father for standing tall in both areas. He sounds like an excellent role model and wonderful person. Thanks again for taking time to write.

  2. Joel: I’m a newbie, but I love Cadillac Records. Your three-part story is fabulous. You should write a biography…Once our world gets back to some semblance of normal, I want to visit Chess Records in Chicago….

    1. Thanks for reading, Marybeth. I visited Chess Records several years ago when I was in Chicago for a Peter Gabriel concert. Willie Dixon’s family runs the space. It was an incredible feeling to stand in the room where “Johnny B. Goode,” “Hoochie Coochie Man” and so many other classic songs were recorded. I hope our world gets back to normal soon and you are able to go there.

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