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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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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

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