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By Joel Francis

After delivering three “important” albums in the past dozen years, it’s nice to know Bob Dylan can make an album without making a statement.

“Together Through Life” feels like an afternoon drive through a dusty Texas border town with the windows rolled down. Much of that feel comes from the ubiquitous accordion played by David Hildago of Los Lobos. Lyricist Robert Hunter – who co-wrote all but one of “Life”’s tunes with Dylan and is best known  for writing “Casey Jones” and other songs with the Grateful Dead – deserves some credit for the record’s lack of ponderousness.

But lack of weight doesn’t equal a lightweight record in this case. The album is a cousin to “New Morning,” a solid, offering that is overshadowed by the albums surrounding it and filled with songs Dylan recorded because he wanted to, not because he had something to say.

Sonically, the album is cut from the same cloth that has defined Dylan’s previous ‘00’s offerings. It is a pastiche of Chess blues, Sun Records country and rock and pre-war pop. While there’s nothing as sunny as “Silvio,” a track Dylan and Hunter collaborated on 20 years ago, there’s also nothing as forgettable as “Ugliest Girl in the World,” the other fruit borne of that union.

Guitarist Mike Campbell from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers adds light acoustic guitars and mandolin to most tracks, but drops a murky electric guitar reminiscent of Neil Young on “Forgetful Heart.”  Lyrically the song resembles the material for “Time Out Of Mind,” right down to the dark lyrics: “The door has closed, if indeed there ever was a door.”

While Dylan albums are rarely sunny endeavors, the gloom of “Forgetful Heart,” and the sarcasm of “It’s All Good” are broken by upbeat numbers like “Jolene” and “Shake Mama Shake” – both of which sound like they came from the Chess Studios at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue circa 1958. The tongue-in-cheek “My Wife’s Hometown” might be Dylan’s funniest number since his knock-knock joke in “Po’ Boy “ while “I Feel A Change Coming On” has a twilight optimism.

Fans have grown accustomed to waiting nearly five years between new offerings. “Together Through Life” is surprise arrival little more than two years after “Modern Life.” “Life”’s runtime of 10 tracks and 45 minutes and lack of “statement song” like “Highlands” or “Ain’t Talkin’” make a tempting case to write the album off as a lesser work. Although it will never measure among the first-tier cannon, those who dismiss it do so at their own folly.

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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

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