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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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PE Still in Full Effect

The squeak on the front door to our office sounds strangely like Terminator X’s scratches on “Rebel Without A Pause.” Every time I’ve opened the door this week my mind has jumped to “the rhythm, the rebel.”

Unfortunately, maintenance oiled the hinges last night. On the bright side, my friend Lindsay said his office fax machine sounds eerily like “Miuzi Weighs a Ton.”

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Rock the Bells Zack

Public Enemy, Black Star, The Roots and Wu-Tang fight the Battle of the Bay in San Francisco

By Joel Francis

The Giants may have been out of town, but that didn’t stop the hits from pouring across McCovey Cove near ATT Stadium when the Rock the Bells festival landed in San Francisco last week.


It was a dream bill that 45,000 fans of ‘90s hip hop couldn’t resist, but with two stages of incredible lineups performing simultaneously some sacrifices had to be made. In the end, The Roots won over The Coup and Public Enemy trumped Blackalicious. Below are some of the day’s highlights.


Public Enemy

Public Enemy was raging against the machine before there was a Rage Against the Machine. Backed by a full band, Chuck D, Flavor Flav and Terminator X showed that songs written during Reagan and Bush Sr. still had plenty of both relevance and resonance. The band did their best Rage tribute with a version of “Son of a Bush” that’s unlikely to win any fans at Fox News. That said, Chuck D probably knows he’s unlikely to win any new fans in the era of T.I., Chamillionaire and, shudder, Flavor of Love, so the band mostly stuck to songs off its groundbreaking initial albums like “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” “Fight the Power,” “Rebel Without a Pause,” and “Public Enemy No. 1.” Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian popped out to lend his axe to “Bring the Noise” and Flavor Flav closed down the set with a performance of “911 Is A Joke” that had the crowd rapping along.


The Roots

As anyone who saw the Roots perform at the Voodoo Lounge last spring can attest, this Philadelphia-based band is one of the most engaging and entertaining performers in the business – regardless of genre. Giving the only 45 minutes was criminal, though predictably the band made the most of what they had. MC Black Thought and drummer/bandleader ?uestlove opened the set with drums-and-mic duet “Web” before the rest of the band and a three-piece horn section joined them. Every song was a highlight, but to watch the group transition from the hip hop beats of “The Next Movement”  to the funky rock of “The Seed 2.0” to the neo-soul flavors of “Act Too (The Love of My Life)” and finally a Philly soul cover of “I Can Understand It” was mind-bogglingly delicious.


Talib Kweli and Mos Def

Mos Def and Talib Kweli have only made one album together which was released nearly a decade ago, but they are still linked in most fans’ minds. There’s good reason for this, as each bring out the best in the other. Mos Def is one of the most improvisational MCs in the business, which is both a blessing and a curse. On his best nights, he rivals most jazz performers with his reworkings of song. On an off night, he comes across as bored. Kweli is one of the best MCs in the game (you don’t get props from Jay-Z on record for nothing) who keeps getting better, but can at times slip into auctioneer mode. Kweli keeps Mos from wandering off, while Mos pushes Kweli’s cadences.

Kweli opened the set on his own, teasing songs from his new album, “Ear Drum,” and launching into classics like “The Blast” and “Move Something,” before bringing out Strong Arm Steady and Jean Grae. Though the guests – especially Grae – were a nice surprise, Kweli was at his best when the DJ dropped out and let Kweli rhyme a cappella. Mos Def took the stage halfway through “Get By” and the results were as close to jazz as two men with a mic are likely to get. From there the duo segued into the classic “Definition,” “Supreme Supreme,” a newer collaboration, and “Respiration.”


Mos performed most of his set on the ground in the area between the stage and the crowd barricade after noticing the strong wind off the bay had the lighting rigs swaying like chandeliers. “It’s hard enough to be a black man in America,” he quipped. “I got kids, y’all.” Fortunately, video cameras and three giant screens kept Mos from being invisible at ground level as he worked his way through a set heavy on newer material. Mos closed with a great medley of “Ms. Fat Booty” and “Brown Skin Lady,” which brought Kweli back out and, finally, “Umi Says.”


Wu-Tang Clan

Hip hop as a live medium tends to get a bad rap (sorry) and acts like Wu-Tang Clan are Exhibit A on how something that sounds great on record doesn’t always transfer well to the stage. Part of the problem is the makeup of the group. There are nine MCs in the Clan, which can be a nightmare at the mixing board. Throughout the evening, each mic was mixed at a different level, rendering lots of vocals inaudible and resulting in something that sounded like loud choreographed chanting. Most songs could only be recognized by the sample or the chorus. Oddly enough the evening’s finest number, “Triumph,” had little in the way of either. Method Man carried the rest of the Clan on his back and carried the night (when he wasn’t crowd surfing and being carried by the crowd), which leaned heavily towards the group’s debut “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).”


Rage Against the Machine

After seven years and nearly two presidential terms apart, Rage reclaimed the stage with a force and energy so powerful a S.W.A.T. team should have assembled. In between Wu-Tang and Rage’s sets, the crowd quickly morphed from a diverse, backpacker good-times gathering to a muscular, white frat-boy mosh pit. There was a mixture of menace and testosterone in the air as a crowd who had patiently waited through three Audioslave albums hungered for the return of the real thing.

They weren’t disappointed. Singer Zack De La Rocha led the band through over a dozen volatile indictments that included hits like “Bombtrack,” “Bulls on Parade” and “Guerilla Radio” with album cuts like “Bullet in the Head,” “Vietnow” and the Afrika Bambaataa cover “Renegades of Funk.” This was the musical equivalent of “Fight Club.”


As the festival closed, the defiant refrain of “Killing in the Name” hung in the air. Seven years was too long to wait, but the combustion of Rage’s 80-minute set made it understandable why these ingredients couldn’t be mixed too often.

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