Review: Jeff Beck

(Above: Jeff Beck takes fans higher with this cover of the Sly and the Family Stone classic.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

After staying away from Kansas City for more than a decade, guitar wizard Jeff Beck has graced city limits twice in a year. The setlist for Saturday night’s concert at a sold-out Uptown Theater may have resembled his y concert at Starlight in APril 2010, but if anyone had a problem with the encore performance they did a good job of hiding it.

Beck had been touring with a pair of vocalists and a horn section and playing 1950s rockabilly and rock and roll classics, so it was somewhat disappointing to see him take the stage with his standard touring band. Any misgivings were easily brushed aside before the first chorus, however.

The musical structure of all pop songs is repetitive – verse, chorus, verse, bridge. Clever lyrics are a major reason why many songs stay fresh. As an instrumentalist, Beck turned to different tools to keep his music interesting. The guitarist and his backing trio, which included Jason Robello on keyboards, Rhonda Smith on bass and drummer Narada Michael Walden, worked hard to make sure the energy never flagged.

The hour-and-45-minute set shifted smoothly between all-out rockers like “Big Block” and delicate readings of “Corpus Christi Carol” and “Two Rivers.” When the quartet opened up the throttle they created a powerful sound. The rhythm section of Walden and Smith played off each other with a notesy, complementary competition in the vein of Keith Moon and John Entwistle. Robello subtly filled in the remaining colors.

Shunning the microphone set up at extreme stage right for most of the night, Beck did all of his communicating with his hands and arms. A flick of the wrist indicated the tempo, while an outstretched arm highlighted the soloist. By shooting his arm straight up, Beck induced a nifty call-and-response with audience during “Led Boots” and coaxed them into signing the final stanza of “Over the Rainbow.” When a fan seated near the stage was caught recording the performance, Beck wagged his finger back and forth disapprovingly.

Taking the stage in a black suit jacket and matching pants, Beck quickly shed the coat. His traditional attire of arms bare to the shoulders was almost like the magician’s disclaimer: nothing up my sleeves. But like a master illusionist, although Beck’s arsenal was on full display, it was impossible to figure out his tricks. On a fairly straightforward reading of “Over the Rainbow,” Beck played the melody barely moving his left hand on the neck of the guitar. The notes were altered by knobs and bars under his busy right hand.

The Beatles needed a full orchestra for their “A Day in the Life.” Beck had everything he needed beyond his wrists. Tenderly plucking the first verse, he slowly built the song until the grand climax exploded off the stage.

Over the course of the evening, Beck paid tribute to many of his favorite artists, including Jeff Buckley (“Corpus Christi Carol”), Muddy Waters (“Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” featuring White on vocals), Les Paul (“How High the Moon”), Jimi Hendrix (“Little Wing,” with Walden on the mic), Sly and the Family Stone (the lengthy raucous “I Want to Take You Higher”) and Puccini (set-closing “Nessun Dorma”). The styles may have been diverse, but Beck never sounded like anything other than himself.

Setlist: Plan B; Stratus; Led Boots; Corpus Christi Carol; Hammerhead; Mna Na Eireann (Women of Ireland); bass solo; People Get Ready; You Never Know; Rollin’ and Tumblin’; Big Block; Over the Rainbow; Little Wing; Blast from the East; Two Rivers; Dirty Mind; drum solo; Brush With the Blues; A Day in the Life. Encore: I Want to Take You Higher; How High the Moon; Nessun Dorma.

Keep reading: 

Jeff Beck relishes “Commotion”

Solomon Burke’s Sweet Soul Music

Review: Bob Dylan

Review: Big Head Blues Club

(Above: Blues legends Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton help Big Head Todd and the Monsters visit the “Killing Floor.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Rock and roll tributes to the blues are hardly a novel concept, but the glossy, contemporary rock of Big Head Todd and the Monsters makes them an unexpected outfit to try such a feat.

Saturday’s concert at the Uptown was billed as “Back at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial Concerts.” The four-piece, Colorado rock band aimed to celebrate Johnson in the months leading up to his 100th birthday in May, but this wasn’t quite the case. Johnson figured prominently in the set, but there was also a heavy dose of Chicago blues. The night was more like an exposition of the genre’s most overt influences on rock. Put another way, the first set opened with Todd Park Mohr alone onstage playing the dobro and ended less than an hour later with dueling drum solos.

Taking the stage in a dark suit and black fedora, frontman Mohr quickly put any expectations for the Monsters’ back catalog to bed, telling the one-third capacity crowd the only thing they’d be hearing was “straight, natural blues.” He was right for the most part, but an audience clamoring for “Bittersweet” – one of the band’s biggest tunes – needn’t have worried. The songs in the last third of the set sounded like typical Big Head Todd material outfitted with familiar blues lyrics.

Mohr opened with three stellar, solo acoustic numbers before being joined by Missouri native Lightnin’ Malcolm and Monsters keyboardist Jeremy Lawton. That trio, along with bass player Rob Squires who entered later, formed the core band for the night, present on nearly every number. They were augmented by drummer Cedric Burnside, grandson of the Fat Possum bluesman R.L. Burnside and Malcolm’s longtime touring partner, and Monsters drummer Brian Nevin.

The real blues cred, however, came from 79-year-old guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and 75-year-old harp man James Cotton. Sumlin’s playing can be heard on most of Howlin’ Wolf’s classic material and Cotton played on many great Muddy Waters records. Half a century later, both men were in just as fine of form today as they were in their Chess Records heyday. Sumlin’s soling was nimble and his vocal turn on “Sittin’ On Top of the World” was strong. Cotton made his harmonica moan and wail like a woman in pleasure and had so much fun during one solo that he started laughing when it was done.

Big Head Todd and the Monsters are no strangers to working with blues legends. In 1997 they worked with John Lee Hooker on a cover of his “Boom Boom” that reached the Top 40. Opinions of that track will likely frame one’s appreciation for the evening: The band either misappropriated a hero to dumb down a song or paid honest homage using their familiar idiom.

The best moments were the spare opening numbers, particularly Lightnin’ Malcolm’s duets with Cotton on “Walkin’ Blues” and “Future Blues.” Mohr really pushed himself at the mic all night and did a great job approximating the Wolf’s moans and rasp on the Chicago numbers. Cotton or Sumlin were onstage for about half of the two-hour set’s 22 songs. Their contributions were always a treat.

After the first, mostly acoustic set, the band took a 20 minute break. They returned for another hour of electric music that blurred the lines between Chicago blues, traditional bar band fare and the typical Big Head sound. Not everything worked – covers of ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and a slick arrangement that removed any sense of doom from “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” were questionable. But there was no doubt everyone onstage was having fun.

Setlist: Love in Vain; Stones In My Passway; Dry Spell; Kind-Hearted Woman Blues; If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day; Walkin’ Blues; Future Blues; Viola Lee Blues; When You Got A Good Friend; Travelling Riverside Blues. Intermission. Ramblin’ On My Mind; Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil); Wang Dang Doodle; Sittin’ On Top of the World; Killing Floor; I Love the Life I Live, I Live the Life I Love; Jesus Just Left Chicago; Come On In My Kitchen; Last Fair Deal Gone Down. Encore: Cross Road Blues; I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom > Sweet Home Chicago.

Keep reading:

Review: Experience Hendrix (ft. Hubert Sumlin)

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Review: Buddy Guy and Bettye LaVette

15 x 15

(Above: The only acceptable version of “Hoochie Coochie Man.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

A fun game has been going around the internet recently: Name 15 albums that influenced your taste in music today in 15 minutes. Because we never play anything straight up at The Daily Record, we twisted the rules a little and came up with 15 songs we dislike by artists we like.

  1. Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven.” Might as well get this heavy out of the way first. Classic rock radio has destroyed this great band’s best-known song. I’ve heard it so many times at this point I can conjure it up in my sleep. I never need to hear it again. Let me go one step further: I’d rather hear a half-hour live version of “Moby Dick” than have to sit through “Stairway” again.
  2. Joni Mitchell – “The Circle Game.” Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song about the cycles of life is actually a remarkable song. It works too well, though, leaving me completely depressed and feeling like I care about has decayed around me in just under 5 minutes. No wonder Mitchell selected this song to close her classic album “Ladies of the Canyon.” After this there’s nowhere to go.
  3. Beastie Boys – “Fight For Your Right To Party.” The Beastie Boys were a lot more creative and fun than the frat boy stereotype this dumb song earned them.
  4. Van Halen – “Love Walks In.” The Sammy Hagar period of the band is rightly painted as inferior to the original lineup, but you can’t help when you were born and I came of age right in the middle of Van Hagar. I never had a problem with Eddie switching from six-string to synths, but the sugary melody combined with lyrics about aliens made this song more than I could handle.
  5. Boogie Down Productions – “Jimmy.” Usually a master of the message, KRS-One’s sermon on safe sex comes off as both preachy and simplistic. The idiotic chorus destroys what little credibility may remain. The track did inspire the Young MC cut “Keep It In Your Pants” from his follow-up to “Stone Cold Rhymin’.” I wish I didn’t know these things, but I do and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
  6. Anyone – “The Long Black Veil.” First performed by Lefty Frizzell in 1959, this country classic has become a staple for Johnny Cash, The Band, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen and a dozen more. I can’t argue with any of those artists, but for a reason I could never put a finger on, it never resonated with me.
  7. Radiohead – “Creep.” This song introduced Radiohead to America, and for that I should be grateful, but “Pablo Honey” is the outlier in their catalog for me. In my mind, the catalog officially starts with “The Bends.”
  8. James Brown – “Killing Is Out, School Is In.” This song became the unintentional center point of Brown’s 2002 concert at the River Market. A lackluster set had already been derailed by a couple Janis Joplin covers by Brown’s then-wife and mayor Kay Barnes onstage proclamation of James Brown Day. Several years after Columbine, the message was not only no longer timely, but embarrassing. The song was later released as a single. Thankfully few heard it.
  9. David Bowie – “Changes.” Yet another song ruined by radio and turned into lazy shorthand for its era by television and movie producers.
  10. The Beatles – “The Long and Winding Road.” Dislike may be too strong a word for this song, but Paul McCartney had already delivered a better ballad for the “Let It Be/Get Back” project. This one feels like a syrupy afterthought to me.
  11. Steve Earle – “The Devil’s Right Hand.” This number brought Earle acclaim as a songwriter before he established himself as a recording artist in his own right. I think Lynyrd Skynyrd covered the same turf better with “Saturday Night Special.” The verses aren’t band, but the song is overly reliant on the repetitive chorus.
  12. The Who – “Behind Blues Eyes.” This sensitive number never seemed to fit in with the rest of “Who’s Next” and it seemed even more out of place as a single. Pete Townshend usually struck the right balance of being tough and vulnerable at the same time (see “The Song Is Over” or “How Many Friends”). He sounds weak and whiney on “Blue Eyes.” Limp Bizkit’s cover confirmed my instinct. Sympathy for Fred Durst? Never!
  13. Anyone but Muddy Waters – “Hoochie Coochie Man.” In the hands of Waters and the Chess studio pros, this is a blues masterpiece. For just about anyone else, it is usually a lame attempt for a middle-aged white guy to show he’s hep to the blooze. I’m looking at you Eric Clapton, Alexis Korner, Steven Seagal and Dion.
  14. Jay-Z – “Young Forever.” Alphaville’s 1984 hit “Forever Young” worked perfectly as the soundtrack to Napolean Dynamite’s dance with Deb. In the hands of Hova, however, it is ridiculous.
  15. Louie Armstrong – “What A Wonderful World.” There’s nothing wrong with Satchmo’s sublime performance. He manages to walk the tightrope between sincere and saccharine as the strings underneath support his presentation. Unfortunately, no one understood the song’s message, as it has a crutch when movie producers want to tug on heartstrings. Joey Ramone’s version was great upon release, but in the decade since it has become a hipster version of the same cliché.  I guess this leaves me with Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips’ weird yet heartfelt reading. I don’t think mainstream America is ready for that to be thrust down their throats – yet.

Keep reading:

Review: Flaming Lips New Year’s Freakout

Jay-Z – “The Blueprint 3″

Review: “Pops” by Terry Teachout

The Best of Jeff Beck

(Above: “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” was Charles Mingus’ tribute to Lester Young. It has been a regular part of Jeff Beck’s performances for the past 30 years.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The guitarist’s guitarist, Jeff Beck has a long and varied career. Here are some of the high points from each of the genres he’s worked in.

Blues

“Ultimate Yardbirds” (2001)

The song “For Your Love” brought the Yardbirds their first big hit, but it cost them their guitarist. When Eric Clapton quit the group for abandoning their blues roots, Jeff Beck was recruited. Beck’s tenure in the Yardbirds bridged the early rave-up blues era and the later psychedelic rock phase. For a brief period, he was joined by Jimmy Page on bass and, later, second guitar. Shortly after the Beck-Page incarnation appeared in the film “Blow Up,” Beck left the band and started his solo career. He has, however, participated on several of the Yardbirds’ reunion albums.

Note: The Yardbirds’ catalog was a frustrating mess of reissues and piecemeal compilations until Rhino released the two-disc anthology “Ultimate Yardbirds.” The collection contains every A-side, key album tracks and a handful of rarities across all three eras of the band.

Hard rock

“Truth” (1968), “Beck-Ola” (1969)

As a nonvocalist, Beck has always had to hunt for a singer. When assembling his first post-Yardbirds project, he nabbed a little-known English R&B singer Rod “The Mod” Stewart. He also recruited Ronnie Wood to play bass. The trio — joined by a rotating cast of drummers — made two albums together before Stewart and Wood left to join the Faces. Both records have a similar feel to the heavy blues/rock Beck’s former bandmate Jimmy Page was making with Led Zeppelin.

Progressive rock

“Beck Bogert Appice,” “Live in Japan” (both 1973)

After the demise of the Jeff Beck Group’s second lineup, Beck teamed up with the rhythm section from Vanilla Fudge, drummer Carmen Appice and bass player Tim Bogert. While the studio album was a typical slab of power trio hard rock, the band expanded its template on the live album, stretching several songs to the 10-minute mark. Both albums contain Beck’s version of “Superstition,” the song Stevie Wonder wrote with Beck in mind, before Wonder’s manager persuaded him to keep it for himself.

Jazz/fusion

“Blow by Blow” (1975), “Wired” (1976)

Beck teamed with producer George Martin for his first all-instrumental solo projects. Asthetically, the albums fit comfortably alongside Chick Corea’s “Return to Forever” and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. “Blow by Blow” contains two Stevie Wonder covers and a version of the Beatles’ “She’s a Woman.” “Wired” contains some outtakes from the “Blow by Blow” sessions and a cover of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” that has become a concert staple. The drummer on “Wired,” Narada Michael Walden, is in Beck’s current touring band.

Pop

“Flash” (1985)

After a five-year recess, Beck returned with Nile Rodgers of Chic. “Flash” was Beck’s bid for mainstream credibility and featured eight singers across its 11 tracks. The album won a Grammy and reunited Beck with Stewart on Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.”

Rockabilly

“Crazy Legs” (1993)

The guitar sound on “B-I-Bickey-Bi, Bo-Bo-Go” and other early Gene Vincent singles had a big effect on Beck as a teenager. In the early ’90s he paired with the Big Town Playboys to pay tribute to Cliff Gallup, Vincent’s guitar player.

Techno

“Who Else!” (1999), “You Had It Coming” (2001)

Longtime fans were surprised when Beck embraced the samples and looping techniques made popular by the Chemical Brothers and Aphex Twins. “You Had It Coming” finds Beck sparring with guitarist Jennifer Batten and features an update of Muddy Waters’ “Rolling and Tumbling” with Imogen Heap on vocals.

Guest Appearances

Jeff Beck has popped up in some unlikely places over the years. Here are some of his most noteworthy performances on others’ albums.

  • Stevie Wonder – “Talking Book” on the song “Lookin’ For Another Pure Love”
  • Tina Turner – “Private Dancer” on the song “Private Dancer”
  • Mick Jagger – “She’s the Boss” and “Primitive Cool”
  • Roger Waters – “Amused to Death”
  • Jon Bon Jovi – “Blaze of Glory – Young Guns II” soundtrack
  • Hans Zimmer – “Days of Thunder” soundtrack
  • Buddy Guy – “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues” on the song “Mustang Sally”
  • The Pretenders – “Viva el Amor!” on the song “Legalise Me”
  • Toots and the Maytals – “True Love” on the song “54-46 Was My Number”
  • Cyndi Lauper – “The Body Acoustic” on the song “Above the Clouds”
  • Morrissey – “Years of Refusal” on the song “Black Cloud”

Keep Reading:

Jeff Beck relishes “Commotion”

Review: Gov’t Mule

(Above: Mule, meet Radiohead. Radiohead, Mule.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

One fan’s T-shirt asked: “Got Mule?” And for the second time in three months, the answer was “yes.”

Nearly 12 weeks after playing to a packed Voodoo Lounge, Gov’t Mule played for another full house Wednesday night at the Granada in Lawrence.

The classic rock jam quartet opened with the dirty blues stomp of “Brand New Angel” before segueing into the wah-driven “Perfect Shelter.” The show didn’t really start, though, until the surprise cover of Jimi Hendrix’ “If 6 Was 9.” It was the first of many cover treats.

A raucous “Helter Skelter” bumped against a medley of Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike” and Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” Earlier in the night, Radiohead’s “Creep” was followed by Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Underfoot.”

There was just as much diversity in band’s original material. Propelled by Danny Lewis’ organ, the intro to “Larger Than Life” recalled Medeski, Martin and Wood. “Streamline Woman,” meanwhile sounded like Led Zeppelin lost in the Florida swamps. And all bets were off for the progressive rocker “Silent Scream,” which encompassed 20 minutes and a drum solo.

The band played a one-hour opening set, before taking a 20-minute break and coming back for another 90 minutes. During that time, most sets of eyes were trained on singer and guitarist Warren Haynes. Haynes also plays in the Allman Bros. and was hailed by Rolling Stone as one of the greatest guitarists of all time. His playing is impressive, but not flashy. It’s like he knows exactly where to put his fingers again and again and again.

Although Haynes took many noteworthy solos, the instrumental “Birth of the Mule” was his tour de force. The 10-minute number opened with Haynes’ delicate, fingerpicked slide playing. Starting like a gentle rain and building into a full storm, the song culminated in a heavy riff reminiscent of Black Sabbath before gliding back to the ground, light as a feather.

The middle-aged, mostly male Mule heads who knew exactly what they were getting into. Although the floor was too packed to dance, everyone seemed content to nod and sway in place.

The night closed with a pair of slide blues rave-ups. Hayes did a great job of replicating Muddy Waters’ early playing style on “Champagne and Reefer.” The tune paired so nicely with Hound Dog Taylor’s “Gonna Send You Back To Georgia” that the two were stretched for 20 minutes.

Setlist: Brand New Angel, Perfect Shelter, Streamline Woman, Larger Than Life ->If 6 Was 9 ->Larger Than Life, Get Out Of My Life, Birth of the Mule, Temporary Saint, Creep, Trampled Underfoot/Intermission/Patchwork Quilt, Helter Skelter, Hunger Strike->Dear Mr. Fantasy->Hunger Strike, Silent Scream->Drum Solo, Like Flies->Mule->I’ve Been Working->Mule/Encore/Champagne and Reefer, Gonna Send You Back To Georgia

Review: Buddy Guy


Above: Buddy Guy preaches the blues via Cream, Hooker and Hendrix.

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

Buddy Guy isn’t mentioned in the film “Cadillac Records” but he made a strong case for his inclusion among the Chess label’s pantheon of greats Friday night at the Uptown Theater.

After a brief introduction by his four-piece band, Guy walked onto the stage and straight into a guitar solo. When he finally tired of pulling notes from his cream-colored Stratocaster, Guy walked to the mic and began to sing. Rattling off the names of his mentors and influences – Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Willie Dixon – he passionately cried “they’re the ones who made the blues, tell me who’s going to fill those shoes?” It was a reverent, but rhetorical question.

Guy has no trouble whipping a crowd into a frenzy, but he can silence them just as easily by placing a finger to his lips. He stayed in a quiet mode for most of the evening, dripping a spare, creeping version of “Hoochie Coochie Man.” The classic Waters number was propelled by Guy’s expressive singing and the familiar bass line while a sprinkling of piano and smattering of guitar solos were drizzled over the top. That number worked its way into two more Waters’ tunes, “Love Her With A Feeling” and “She’s Nineteen Years Old.”

While his playing was still fiery, Guy was content to smolder for an evening. With the drums gently clicking like metronome, band played so subtly they were easily overwhelmed by conversation when the audience grew restless. The steady flow of bodies to the beer stands said the crowd wasn’t expecting so much restraint.

Likewise, Guy probably wasn’t expecting such an empty house. The Uptown’s balcony was closed off and while the floor was basically full, there were still plenty of vacant seats.

Opening act Tom Hambridge, who also produced Guy’s latest album, hopped onstage to lend vocal support to “Skin Deep.” Guy’s journey as the child of Louisiana sharecroppers to witnessing his fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama claim the presidency gives his song for racial equality extra poignancy. The soul ballad ended with the audience singing along. Bolstered by a Hammond organ, the song wasn’t quite gospel, but it felt a lot like church.

A tribute to Albert King opened with one of the mellowest readings of “I’m Going Down” of all time. The song heated up, though, when Guy jumped offstage and slowly made his way through the assembly. Feeding off the crowd’s energy, Guy devastated “Drowning On Dry Land.” Walking into the foyer, Guy unleashed the most blistering solo of the night with few witnesses around. With his guitarist and bass player swaying to a synchronized two-step on stage, Guy sauntered back into the theater and plopped down in one of its seats without missing a note. Guy’s six-string field trip ended with a passionate performance of B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby.”

The second half of the show was essentially a mega medley of Guy’s blues heroes. Rotating from John Lee Hooker to Little Walter to Cream to a dialed-down cover of Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” Guy switched songs so often it was almost like their was a penalty for playing a number all the way through. He found a wah wah peddle and the volume switch for “Voodoo Child” and channeled James Brown for a stellar snippet of “I Go Crazy.” After nearly 90 minutes onstage, Guy closed with a bit of “Kansas City.”

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

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

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

BoDiddleyGunslinger

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

The True Story of Cadillac Records (Part One): The Birth of Chess Records and the Chicago Blues

howlin-wolf

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