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(Above: Marvin Gaye asks for a witness. He gets four go-go dancers.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

For the past 46 years, few have been able to see “ The T.A.M.I. Show,” the 1964 concert film that captured early performances from the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the first major U.S. appearance of the Rolling Stones.

A tangle of legal issues sent the movie to exile almost immediately after it was sent to the theaters. The producer lost his rights and the film was never released on video rarely shown in public. For years fans would read about how incredible the “T.A.M.I. Show” was – particularly James Brown’s appearance, which Rick Rubin once said “may be the single greatest rock and roll performance ever captured on film” – without being able to see it. Thankfully this has finally been corrected. After decades of wrangling, Shout Factory has finally released the “T.A.M.I. Show” on DVD.

After a montage of all the stars arriving over one of the longest Jan and Dean songs ever, Chuck Berry takes the stage. His appearance ties the film back to “Rock Rock Rock” and the classic ‘50s rock and roll films, but halfway through “Maybelline,” the camera swings over to Gerry and the Pacemakers doing their version of the song. It’s a little disorienting at first, and doesn’t completely work, mostly because Gerry is so campy. He’s constantly playing to the camera, and the group clearly doesn’t have Berry’s talent or charisma.

Fortunately, an endless parade of go-go dancers in bikinis is on hand to distract from any lulls in the music. Constantly in motion, the dancers swarm across the stage – often directly in front of the performers – and on platforms in the back. The producers discovered what MTV perfected in the ‘90s with “The Grind:” buxom, gyrating dancers will make even the most execrable music enjoyable.

The showgirls hog the camera during the first number of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ set. Fortunately, lens eventually pulls back on the second number, and the quartet delivers the first great performance of the night. Robinson drops down, jumps up and throws his entire spirit into an extended “You Really Got A Hold On Me.” That energy carries into “Mickey’s Monkey,” that has everyone onstage and in the crowd dancing. Marvin Gaye continues Motown’s strong showing with a great “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.” For “Can I Get a Witness” he performs away from the band, flanked by two shimmying girls.

Director Steve Binder isn’t shy about cutting to the junior high and high school students in the audience screaming in delirium. One long shot accidentally allows a glimpse of policemen in helmets patrolling the aisles. There was clearly a hard line on the level of excitement that could be displayed.

It’s hard to believe Lesley Gore was the biggest star on the bill at the time, and that she didn’t become an even bigger star later. Gore dutifully performs her best-known songs, the No. 1 “It’s My Party” and its Top 5 sequel “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” but her poise, grace and presence suggest she should have had a much longer career. Gore It’s too bad she couldn’t keep up with the harder, psychedelic edge rock music was about to take.

Several of Gore’s songs are captured by a camera that looks like Vaseline has been smeared over the lens. In the commentary track, Binder said that was exactly what was done. He either couldn’t afford or didn’t have time to outfit the rigs with soft focus capability, so they went with this bargain basement substitute. Unfortunately, it looks like Gore is singing through a funhouse mirror.

Jan and Dean, the evening’s MCs, kick off the surf portion of the show, but they are outmatched by the Beach Boys, who follow. Jan and Dean’s harmonies seem thin and the skate-board-in-a-guitar-case trick can’t hold up to the Boys’ rich voices and Brian Wilson’s songwriting. The performance was filmed months before Wilson’s nervous breakdown forced him off the road. Here he looks completely at ease and happy.

After the movie’s initial run, the Beach Boys’ manager demanded his client’s four-song set be removed. When the inevitable “T.A.M.I. Show” bootlegs popped up, the Beach Boys were usually missing. This DVD finally restores the lush “Surfer Girl” and the freedom of “I Get Around.”

The film treads water through the Dakotas, Supremes and Barbarians until – finally – we get to James Brown and the Famous Flames. Honestly, there’s nothing he does here that wasn’t captured on the incredible “Live at the Apollo” album one year earlier. This, however, was his first major show in front of a white audience. It also gave fans the opportunity to see Brown work his magic in addition to just hearing it.

The Flames are razor-sharp as Brown kicks into “Out of Sight.” Showing his penchant for adventurous covers, Brown resuscitates Perry Como’s hit “Prisoner of Love.” He then directs the Flames into “Please, Please, Please” and the place goes nuts for the now-infamous cape routine. Brown’s pants, which were clean before the song, are scuffed and dirty at the knees from all the times he falls down (only to pop right back again.) During “Night Train” he does this crazy dance on one foot where he manages to wriggle across the stage. Not only does he not fall down, but he looks impossibly smooth.

In his commentary on the “T.A.M.I. Show” trailer, director John Landis, whose entire seventh grade class scored invites to the taping, said the Rolling Stones “were kind of boring after James Brown.” He’s right. The Stones open with a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around,” an odd choice considering Berry was onstage earlier. They don’t start to live up to their hype and billing until the terrific “Time Is On My Side” and “It’s All Over Now.”

It’s difficult to watch the early Stones without picturing the lazy spectacle they’ve become. There is a hunger in these songs and Mick Jagger is genuinely working to win the crowd’s approval. It’s odd to see Brain Jones so alive and so happy. It seems he was born with those omnipresent bags under his eyes that just grew sadder and deeper until the lids above closed forever.

But that was still several dark years off. The “T.A.M.I. Show” is a celebration that despite some dated production techniques and material still feels vibrant. It’s a peek behind a curtain to a world where artists from not only all over the world, as the song goes, but all genres, could party together on the same stage. In a way, it was a precursor to the weekend festivals that would pop up at the end of the decade and have resurfaced to dominate the summer musical landscape again today.

Keep reading:

Talking James Brown and King Records with Jon Hartley Fox

Talking Motown with Bill Dahl

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Review: The Temptations and Four Tops

(Below: The Beach Boys get around.)

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(Above: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band back Chuck Berry at the 1995 Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.)

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.

On Monday, The Daily Record examined the first half of Springsteen’s performances on the “Rock Hall Live” box set. Today, we look at Springsteen’s appearance at the Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, his triumphant E Street reunion kick-off and sitting in with U2.

1995 – “Johnny B. Goode” (with Chuck Berry)

In the classic Chuck Berry film “Hail Hail Rock and Roll,” Springsteen tells the story of how he and his pre-E Street band backed Berry in the 1970s. More than two decades later, at the Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Springsteen reprises the role here, this time with his E Street brothers in tow. Springsteen is relegated to backing vocals and rhythm guitar, but Clarence Clemons punctuates Berry’s lyrical bursts with stings of saxophone a la King Curtis. Sporting a goatee and ear-to-ear grin, Springsteen sheds his backup roll to peel off a brief solo after Berry’s duckwalk.

1995 – “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” (with Jerry Lee Lewis, rehearsal)

In this bonus feature Springsteen and the E Street band rehearses “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” with Jerry Lee Lewis before the Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The musicians soundcheck their instruments as the crew preps the stage. There’s one dry run through the number, which is unfortunately edited out. Even though everyone is just messing around they still earn applause from the resting workers on the side of the stage. The footage isn’t incredible enlightening or interesting, but it’s worth watching once.

1999 – “The Promised Land,” “Backstreets,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “In the Midnight Hour” (with Wilson Pickett)

The E Street Band were on the cusp of their first tour together in 11 years when they teased the world with a four-song set at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York. Although the entire performance is captured in the “Rock Hall Live” box, it is frustratingly spread across four discs. Springsteen calls each band member one at a time to join him during onstage during his induction to the hall. While there’s no rust from the decade apart in the opening “The Promised Land,” the band is still getting warmed up. There’s no sweat on Springsteen’s dress shirt at the end of the number.

One can tell from the opening chords of “Backstreets” that this is going to be a special performance. Springsteen unloads every ounce of his soul into the microphone and beats a great solo out of his battered Telecaster. The band is majestic and powerful and inspired the normally staid attendees to dance around their banquet tables.

As photos of a young Springsteen flash on video boards behind the band, the Boss drops to his knees as the classic Little Steven horn arrangement to “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” kicks in. Sans guitar, Springsteen uses his arms, legs and hips to cue the band and animate the crowd. It works. Everyone onstage and in the crowd is firing on all cylinders when Billy Joel slips beside Roy Bittan on the organ bench and Wilson Pickett enters to deliver “In the Midnight Hour.” Pickett’s voice is as powerful as ever and Springsteen draws on his years of “Detroit Medley” experience to match that ferocity while delivering the second verse. The band burnishes their credentials as the best house band in the business. If anyone were looking to update “The Last Waltz” and showcase a classic ensemble and their influences, the E Street Band should be the top candidate.

2005 – “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (with U2)

“When I say that America is not just a country, but an idea, I’m thinking about people like Bruce Springsteen,” Bono says, introducing the song over The Edge’s chiming guitar chords. As the second verse starts, we catch a glimpse of Springsteen in the wings, waiting for his entrance. It takes the Boss a moment to get oriented before delivering the third verse, which kills the momentum of the performance. The moment is a bit superfluous – U2 doesn’t need his help – bit it’s a nice gesture. Springsteen matches Bono’s vocal passion and closes the performance on a powerful note.

Keep reading:

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

Review: “Big Man” by Clarence Clemons

New DVD Set Celebrates Rock Hall Performances

More Bruce Springsteen on The Daily Record

 

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rock hall dvds

By Joel Francis

When the Rolling Stones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, a tuxedo-clad Mick Jagger famously announced “Tonight we’re all on our best behavior — and we’re being rewarded for 25 years of bad behavior.”

That irony is on full display throughout eight of the DVDs in a new collection of induction ceremony performances released by Time Life and the Rock Hall this month. (A ninth disc features highlights from the 1995 Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held in Cleveland.) Despite white tablecloth banquet tables and austere surroundings, great music frequently prevails.

The “Rock Hall Live” discs each run between 75 and 90 minutes and have a loose theme of soul, punk or ‘50s pioneers and the performances span the first ceremony in 1986 to this year’s Metallica induction. The performances tend to fall in two camps.

The early ceremonies were all-star celebrations of the inductees’ songbooks shot with on a couple video camera. Through fly-on-the-wall footage we see Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry swap verses on “Roll Over Beethoven” and Little Richard rejoice through “I Can’t Turn You Loose” as Jagger, Bob Dylan, members of the Beatles, Beach Boys and other rock royalty stand shoulder to shoulder, holding mics and strumming instruments. It’s fun to play spot the artist during these early presentations. Sometimes the results are shocking, as when Stevie Ray Vaughan appears – playing a Les Paul, no less – during “Beethoven.”

As the ceremonies grew in stature, the performances were better preserved and choreographed. The past 15 years of inductions play like one massive VH1 special, makes sense as these events have been a spring broadcast staple on that channel for better than a decade. Although the production is smoother, the spontaneity is retained when Jimmy Page casually strolls onstage to join Jeff Beck on “Beck’s Bolero” and Queen jam with the Foo Fighters on “Tie Your Mother Down.”

With are more than 100 performances across the nine discs, some unevenness is expected. Some this is because of the health of the performers. These discs capture some of the final appearances by The Band’s Rick Danko, Ruth Brown, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Billy Powell and Johnny Cash. Brown and Powell are fine, but Danko and Cash labor through their sets. Sometimes the pairings misfire, as on Bruce Springsteen and Axl Rose’s duet through “Come Together.”

These missteps are minimized by the tight pacing of each disc, which moves from artist to artist like a well-paced soundtrack, with occasional snippets of introduction and induction speeches. (Complete version of selected speeches are available as bonus features.)  Despite the loose themes, each disc boasts a variety of guitar heroes, singer/songwriters, tributes and hits.

The best moments come when the performers reach beyond the formal atmosphere, like when Patti Smith spits onstage, or two kids bum rush the stage to help Green Day commemorate the Ramones. There is an impressive display of solos from guitar heroes Beck, Page, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Joe Perry, Carlos Santana, Peter Green, and Kirk Hammett, but the greatest six-string moment is Prince’s searing tribute to George Harrison on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Anchored by Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Harrison’s son Dhani, the immaculately tailored Prince soars on an jaw-dropping solo that is long on both melody and style.

Each disc contains about a several bonus features, which highlight backstage moments like watching Steven Tyler and Joe Perry induct Led Zeppelin from the wings of the stage with the band (and Willie Nelson!). It’s fun to watch Robbie Robertson, Bruce Springsteen and John Fogerty work out “Green River” and to eavesdrop on Hammett and Perry talk about guitars, but one viewing is probably enough.

One downside to this set is the packaging and sequencing. Each disc is housed in its own separate, full-sized case. This takes up a lot of shelf space. It would have been nice if they all came bundled in one compact, cardboard and plastic unit like seasons of TV shows.

The greater inconvenience is the sequencing. Cream’s three-song reunion from 1993 is spread across three discs. Ditto for the Doors’ 1993 set with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (three songs over three discs) and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street revival from 1999 (four songs on four discs). Culling the best moments is understandable, but it would have been great to get the multi-song sets in one place. It is also puzzling that less than two hours of the six-hour Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are included.

Oversights aside, any of these discs stand alone as a fun romp through rock history and celebration of its greatest songs and players across most genres and eras. At $120, this set isn’t cheap, but it’s a heck of a lot more affordable – and easier to come by – than the ticket that gets you a plate at one of those sterile, banquet tables. You don’t have to dress up, either.

(Full disclosure: The Daily Record received a complimentary review copy of “Rock Hall Live.”)

Keep Reading:

Rock Hall Celebrates 50 Years of Motown

Rock Hall Celebrates the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light (Rock Hall photo exhibit)

Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part one)

Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part two)

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(Above: Ornette Coleman jams with the Roots. Improbably, people respond positively to the non-traditional collaboration.)

By Joel Francis

In 1958, Danny and the Juniors sang “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay.” Although the genre was only seven years removed from the its birth on the “Rocket 88” single and three years from its explosion into the mainstream with Elvis Presley, Danny White was right. Sixty years later, it is hard to imagine American culture without rock and roll.

It is also hard to imagine what the malt-shop teens and leather jacket hoods of the Eisenhower administration would have thought about auto-tune, power pop and nu-metal. Although the seeds of today’s rock were planted in the 1950s, the resulting flora has blossomed into hybrids that bear little resemblance to the original crop.

Picture how different today’s musical landscape would be if anything that varied from the pre-British Invasion strains of rock and roll were bastardized. If songs bearing the touch of John Lennon and Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were decried as impure for straying from the “true” roots of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.  Or if anything after the summer of punk and the rise of synthesizers was kept at arm’s length and segregated from the great Rock Cannon.

Would we expect our children to dig out old Bill Haley and Beach Boys albums if this were the case? Teach them “Fun Fun Fun” and “Maybelline” as historical exercises? Of course not. They would shrug, pay us lip service and invent their own confounding strain of music. The ties to existing music would be obvious – nothing emerges in a vacuum – but nothing we couldn’t dismiss as the impure follies of youth.

Why, then, do we place the same parameters around jazz and feign surprise with then inevitable occurs?

It seems every year a new study comes out showing the median age of jazz listeners climbs while attendance drops. The latest is a National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts conducted through the U.S. Census Bureau. Predictably, the self-appointed Guardians of Jazz like Wall Street Journal columnist and former Kansas City resident Terry Teachout are freaking out. But all this hand-wringing is like an ordinary bicycle enthusiast fretting while the chain-driven model populates the streets. The vehicle is still very much alive, it’s just been modified and influenced by culture.

Too many jazz museums and concert curators suffer from WWWS: What would Wynton say. Would Wynton Marsails, the genre’s most prominent performer and steadfast caretaker, approve of their exhibit or event? While Marsalis is a talent trumpet player who deserves every bit of his fame and credit for bringing jazz to the masses, he is conservative and traditionalist to a fault. Museum directors and concert promoters should be following their own muse and vision, not looking to someone as restrictive as Marsalis for tacit endorsement.

The growth of jazz from Dixieland to big band to bebop is celebrated, but somewhere along the line – about 1965, shortly before John Coltrane’s death, when free jazz and fusion started to creep into the mix – a line was drawn. In shorthand, acoustic Herbie Hancock playing with Miles Davis and recording for Blue Note is “good” jazz; synthesizer-rocking Hancock’s best-selling “Head Hunters,” though, is “bad.”

If directors and promoters must get the thumbs-up from a Marsalis, could it please be Branford? Although a lesser celebrity, the tenor saxophone player and older brother of Wynton has equally distinguished jazz pedigree. He’s also allowed jazz to grow, branching into pop with Sting, serving as musical director for the Tonight Show and working with hip hop artists.

If the stodgy stylistic caretakers turned up their noses when jazz artists, the highest pedigree of musicians, started dabbling in rock and funk, they have completely ignored most jazz performers slumming with rappers in a genre oft-maligned for possessing the lowest level of musicianship.

The elitists are missing the point. At their best, jazz and hip hop are better together than chocolate and peanut better. The improvisational aspect of jazz fits the free-flowing poetry delivered by a great MC. The swing of the instruments matches the swagger of the beats. Dig the way DJ Logic’s turntable work complements Medeski, Martin and Wood’s “Combustication” album, how Mos Def and Q-Tip’s rhymes soar over Ron Carter’s live basslines, or how Roy Hargrove’s trumpet pushes and accentuates Common’s poetry.

Teachout and Wynton Marsalis’ simplified stances ignore the long history of jazz in popular culture. The enduring standard “Someday My Prince Will Come,” was plucked from Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Although both Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong released albums of Disney material, it is doubtful Wynton Marsalis would record a song from a children’s cartoon.

The Chicken Little jazz forecasts don’t show that jazz is less popular or interesting today. The news they bring is even more disturbing: hard evidence that the standard-bearers of the genre are increasing ignorant to how their beloved music has grown, changed and been embraced. They’re the ones missing the party, but don’t worry – their numbers are dwindling.

(Below: More Ornette Coleman with the Roots for all the alarmists. Note how well the musicians play together despite being from the disparate worlds of jazz and hip hop. Surely this is a sign of the apocalypse.)

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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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