The True Story of Cadillac Records (Part Three): The Final Days and Legacy of Chess Records

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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

22 thoughts on “The True Story of Cadillac Records (Part Three): The Final Days and Legacy of Chess Records

  1. Thanks for the great information! Too bad Youtube does not want to let us hear any of the music as we are reading (helping us to buy copies of the music). The copyright rules on Youtube are going to make it obsolete if it keeps going.

    1. Shane,
      I agree that it was not cool for Universal (who owns the Chess label and masters) to pull that great content off Youtube. Those videos worked when I published these posts back in December. My guess is their removal has something to do with Universal’s announcement to launch their own music video site in partnership with Youtube. It was probably too convenient for music fans to have all these great videos in one place.
      You can read Universal’s announcement here.
      Thanks for reading,
      Joel

      1. I have now updated all the Chess/Cadillac Record entries. The non-working Youtube videos have been replaced with still photos. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Shane.

  2. Really enjoyed the movie and wanted to find the true story. Thanks so much for the information in a well-written, condensed form. We know the true story…some squandered their money, but they were also riped off.

  3. Still the truth has not come out…the blues did not give birth to gospel. Please correct that piece of information. True gospel came from the plantations…slaves singing for hopes of freedom…thus the blues came about on those same plantations, and later sharecroppers.

  4. It is a shame that the general public is not aware of the role Chess Records and the blues played in the history of Rock n Roll. Without American blues there would be no rock n roll today. The story of Chess Records is a part of history. There would be no British invasion without the blues. Long live the Blues.

  5. i wish i was born in that era to actually see how greatness is created out of nothing
    so many miles apart to chess together from the heart
    bravo to daily records

    1. I’m grateful for my Parents they introduced me all this music I have 3 kids And my grandson even knows about Cadillac records but I also do my research afterwards because me being who I am I know this isn’t all true but I’m glad I saw this story on the internet it’s amazing thank you for it and I still listen to Howling Wolf He was my mommy’s Favorite May they all continue to rest and know they all have a lot of new fans over here

      1. Thanks for reading, Latoya. Howlin Wolf is my favorite blue singer as well. I think its great the blues continues to resonate and has been passed along from your mother, to you and now your children. That’s three generations singing (but hopefully not living) the blues! Stay safe, Latoya.

  6. I am watching Cadillac Records as I read this bio and its great to learn even more about those who brought us the music we still hear today.

  7. I think your full of it.. My couzin marshall chess has a journal and said this is all BS! & Is upset disgusted by the way people act like they know it all just because they watch some movie…GET ALIFE!

  8. Like Chess Air/Malaco with holds millions of dollars from their artist that made gospel music history in 1983 out selling Thriller in many markets and was voted one of the TOP 20 Gospel Songs of the 20th Century. My wife Janice Brown with her pastor the late F. C. Barnes’s “Rough Side of the Mountain” sold 250,000 copies the first week of release and stayed # 1 on Billboard for two years. Rev. Janice Brown has been paid less than $70,000.00 in 33 years. That don’t include 7 other albums that went to # 1 or in the TOP 10 this was written by Bishop Monte Stephens husband of Janice Brown Stephens know as Ebony & Ivory in the music world. Thanks for your time…….

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