Above: The Wolf howls.
By Joel Francis
Leonard Chess’ motivation for buying the property on South Cottage Grove in Chicago that would become the Macomba Lounge was clear: he thought it would make money.
When his brother Phil got out of the Army in 1946, he went straight to work with his brother at the club. It was located in a rough black neighborhood known for prostitution and drugs, but within four years it was a prime haunt for both musicians and patrons.
The Macomba Lounge burnt to the ground in 1950, but the Chess brothers’ back-up plan was well underway. Shortly after buying the Macomba, the brothers established Aristocrat Records as a way to record the musicians who played the lounge. Instead of having the bands show up on Cottage Grove to play, they would show up at the Aristocrat offices several blocks down the street and record.
It was a far cry from the world the Polish immigrants born Lejzor and Fiszel Czyz left. Their father was a shoemaker and the family of five lived in one large cement-floored room with no electricity, running water or heat. In the winter, the family brought their cow inside for warmth.
The timing for Aristocrat Records’ foray into “race” music couldn’t have been better. Five million African-Americans fled north to escape Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan in the second Great Migration. One of the emigrants was a Mississippi sharecropper who had been recorded in 1941 by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress.
McKinely Morganfield was a hot commodity at the juke joints and house parties around Stovall plantation, but he thirsted for bigger success and escape from the cotton fields. In 1943, he moved to Chicago, but his acoustic guitar and “country” style didn’t play as well. After a couple years driving trucks during the day and playing clubs by night, he was given an electric guitar. Bolstered by his new, amplified instrument, Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, married his native Delta blues style with the hard, electric soul of his new hometown.
In 1948, Waters cut two songs for Aristocrat that launched his career and established the Chess brothers as players in the music business. “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home” convinced Leonard and Phil the blues were the way to go, and they gradually started letting Waters bring his sidemen and other musicians in to cut sides. By the time the name of the label was changed to Chess Records in 1950, the label’s stable included harmonica king Little Walter, guitarists Robert Nighthawk and Jimmy Rodgers and bass maestro Willie Dixon.
A former boxer, Dixon was another Mississippi transplant and the architect of not only the Chess sound, but the post-World War II blues scene that continues to thrive today. Dixon was the Chess brothers’ right-hand man. While the brothers hovered around the blues scene they could only get so close. Dixon was in the scene, connected to all the major players and all the hot trends. Dixon had an ear to the track, but he forged his own path as well, writing the lion’s share of the genre’s biggest numbers: “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “My Babe,” “Little Red Rooster,” and “Spoonful.” Rare was the Chess release that didn’t feature Dixon’s bass playing, songwriting or production skills – most had all three. When the blues caught on in England in the 1960s, Dixon arranged several annual American Folk Blues Festival tours of Europe that featured many of the day’s biggest stars (many of whom, coincidentally, also recorded for Chess). Dixon once said “I am the blues.” He was not bragging.
While Phil was in Chicago recording Dixon’s songs, Leonard was on the road promoting, meeting with distributors, disc jockeys and learning the business. On one trip to Memphis, Leonard made a contact who put him in touch with Sam Phillips. Phillips hadn’t established Sun Studios yet, but his legendary ear was already glued to the ground. Phillips sent Chess his recording of Ike Turner’s song “Rocket 88” recorded by Turner with singer Jackie Brenston and some songs by Chester Burnett.
The 300-pound Burnett was better known by his stage name, Howlin’ Wolf. Yet another Mississippi escapee, Wolf moved to Memphis after his military discharge following World War II and had a radio show in West Memphis, Ark. His company on the airways included Rufus Thomas and B.B. King. Like King, Wolf cut some albums for the Bihari brothers and Modern Records, but after Phillips slipped Chess a copy of “How Many More Years” a bidding war erupted for Wolf’s music. Chess won the battle and Wolf moved to Chicago to cut records with Dixon and compete with Waters on the legendary Maxwell Street blues scene.
Keep reading The True Story of Cadillac Records.
Part Two: Chess Records and the Birth of Rock and Roll
Part Three: The Final Days and Legacy of Chess Records