Story of Chess Records

Story of Chess Records

Hardcover(1st U.S. Edition)


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781582340050
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 10/28/1998
Edition description: 1st U.S. Edition
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 7.76(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.78(d)

About the Author

John Collis is a freelance writer whose recent books include Van Morrison: Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, and The Blues: Its Roots and Inspirations. He lives in London, England.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



In April 1948, five years after making the trip from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, Muddy Waters went into the recording studio for the second time in a month. Indeed some discographies suggest that both sessions took place on the same day. But whereas the previous cuts had involved pianist Sunnyland Slim, alto saxophonist Alex Atkins and bassist Big Crawford, producing high-quality but unsurprising Chicago blues, Muddy returned with Crawford alone. The results, 'I Can't Be Satisfied' and 'I Feel Like Going Home', brought the Delta passion of Robert Johnson and Son House to postwar Chicago, and changed the course of the blues.

    The interplay between Waters's whining, rattling, amplified bottleneck guitar and Crawford's stand-up slap bass was electrifying, an urgent, syncopated duel fought out beneath the rich Mississippi drawl of Waters's voice. The record established him as the new star of Chicago blues, and gave the year-old record label Aristocrat its first hit, selling some 60,000 copies. When in 1950 the Polish immigrant brothers Leonard and Phil Chess became sole owners of the label and changed its name to Chess Records, Waters was still on hand to provide another success, 'Rollin' Stone'.

    'What the hell's he singing?' a mystified Leonard Chess had allegedly wanted to know when MuddyWater's first abandoned the formalities of citified blues and gave vent to the vengeful 'I Can't Be Satisfied'. However, by now, as the success of his label grew, Chess was getting used to it, and the indeliblelink between the Delta, the breeding ground of southern blues, and Chicago, its northern branch office, was confirmed once more.

    The Chess story came about because Chicago was the chosen destination for two distinct migrations, of rural blacks from the South and of European Jews. Muddy Waters took the train from the Delta, while the Chess brothers, their surname Westernized from Chez, joined the transatlantic influx from Eastern Europe, in their case the region known as White Russia. Chicago had long been such a refuge — successive censuses in 1890 and 1900 showed that more than three-quarters of the city's population were either foreign-born or their first-generation Chicagoan offspring. The meeting between the Polish entrepreneurs and the young bluesman from Rolling Fork, Mississippi, prompted an unparalleled flowering of Chicago blues that lasted into the 1960s.


The blues is a wandering music, always moving on in search of a night-time paying crowd, and usually a necessary reward for daytime sweat. As the 20th century progressed, this non-musical labour became less and less southern and agricultural, more and more northern and industrial. Blues musicians most typically travelled by rail, and the vehicle for the most significant of all the blues migrations, from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, was the Illinois Central Railroad, running a thousand miles almost due north from New Orleans to Chicago's Illinois Central Station.

    It was hardly the 'Sweet Home Chicago' that the greatest of the pre-war Delta singers, Robert Johnson fantasized about in a song that has become a blues anthem. 'Sweet ghetto' maybe, sung with irony, because though the more liberated North denied that. racial segregation existed in matters of public housing, of course it did. And anyway, when you made that decisive move from some no-future dusty Delta settlement, as a free man working like a slave, you would naturally seek out your own kind, and preferably your own kin.

    In the 15 years from 1935 America built 11 million homes for public housing projects, under guidelines laid down in the manual of the Federal Housing Administration. 'If a neighborhood is to retain stability,' this stated, 'it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.' This ingrained belief was strong enough to withstand testing by law, and was often — as in Chicago — in direct contradiction of officially stated policy. So the migrants were inevitably heading for the ghetto, deprived of the degree of public funding awarded to white neighbourhoods.

    The drift from the rural South to the industrial North, particularly to Chicago, began soon after the Civil War of 1861-5 and the subsequent emancipation of the slaves. Emancipation into what? The war had ruined the economy of the defeated South and so everyone there suffered, most of all the blacks at the foot of the social and economic ladder. In any case there was a growing distaste for plantation life, with its still-fresh association with the indignity, toil, poverty and often brutality of slavery. Therefore the impulse to move was probably more a rejection of the immediate past than a confidence in the industrial future, which would have been an unknown quantity to most rural blacks.

    Former Confederates, the oppressors, gradually resumed power in a 'free' nation, their racial opinions intact. Landlords imposed harsh conditions designed to ensure that sharecropping farmers were for ever in their debt, advancing loans at interest to buy seed and food, purchasing a share of the harvest at a rate that never allowed the farmer to prosper, to build for an independent future. Faced with such servitude, no wonder so many blacks had rambling on their mind.

    This alarming dispersal of ready labour left white landowners with two options. One was to offer humane conditions, a sense of partnership, generous rewards for hard and productive work. Not surprisingly, this remedy appealed only to a minority. Others exploited laws governing such matters as vagrancy and labour contracts, and lobbied for legislation forbidding the enticement of workers with promises of better conditions. And if blacks broke such laws, they could be forced to work for the local authority, which once again curtailed movement.

    By 1900 there were some nine million blacks in the USA, and almost 90 per cent were still in the South — but this is already evidence of a growing diaspora, since with few exceptions they all started there. Of that huge southern majority 80 per cent lived outside the cities and large towns with citified ambitions, in settlements and villages. In 1920 the proportion of blacks remaining in the South had diminished, but only slightly. More significantly, a third of all American blacks were now urbanized. Move on another two decades, just before the huge population shuffle caused by the USA's entry into the Second World War, and half the nation's blacks were now in the cities — though the proportion in the South had only been nibbled away by a few more percentage points. The flight to the North was striking, but the flight from the land — as cotton-picking became mechanized — was even more so.

    However, during the war years another half a million blacks moved to the North — and stayed there. By 1970 80 per cent of black Americans lived in cities, and more than half of them were now in the North. So in a hundred years most blacks had moved northwards and almost all, even those who remained in the South, had moved from country to city. In terms of numbers today, Chicago is second only to New York City as far as the size of the black population is concerned, an increase of over a million from the quarter of a million in 1940.

    The flight to the cities, whether or not to the industrial North, had been prompted by a series of triggers. To those already mentioned could be added the growing sense of economic depression in the 1920s, which was felt by those at the bottom of the economic scale long before the period was officially baptized 'The Depression'. Add to poverty, racism and exploitation such devils as the boll weevil, soil erosion and increasing foreign competition in the staple products of the South, cotton, tobacco and sugar cane — a global shift that the average southern landlord, let alone his tenants, could have little control over — and the dirt farm, which had long ago lost its charm, was less and less viable.

    As the Depression continued, statistics produced in 1934 suggested that 17 per cent of whites and 38 per cent of blacks were incapable of supporting themselves. A year later a survey in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the nearby urban escape routes from the rural South, found that 65 per cent of those blacks capable of earning a living actually needed public assistance to survive, and in Norfolk, Virginia, the figure was 80 per cent. Worse, starving black people found that even religious and other charitable institutions often extended their benevolence only to starving whites, turning away blacks.

    So the reasons for the flight from the land are clear. But why did so many blacks choose Chicago? The city's story could be said to have begun in 1673, when the explorers Louis Joliet, a French-Canadian, and Jacques Marquette, a Frenchman, traced a Y-shaped river inland from what is now Lake Michigan and discovered that its arms almost reached the Mississippi — so that it was just a short canal's length away from a mighty watercourse running through the heart of the continent.

    For a further century, however, the residents of the mud-flat land where Chicago now stands remained the local native Americans, supplemented by a floating population of trappers and traders. In the 1770s the first known foreign -- and black — settler arrived, Jean Baptiste Point Sable, the son of a French trader who had settled in Haiti and married a local black woman. In 1795 the United States obtained a six-mile-square area around the mouth of the river — as with most dealings with the indigenous population, 'obtained' may well be a euphemism.

    Illinois became part of the Union in 1818, and with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, the final link with the Atlantic seaboard, the now-growing town of Chicago became a significant terminus at the western extremity. The Illinois and Michigan Canal was completed in 1848, forging that further vital link to the Mississippi, all the way down to New Orleans.

    By now it was so strategically placed in the heart of the growing nation that Chicago became the centre of the developing rail network as well. With water and rail transport in place, industry inevitably flourished. Chicago was a significant contributor of labour and manufactured equipment to the Union side in the Civil War. Ironically, in rural Illinois many people held strong secessionist sentiments and argued for a link with the Confederacy — perhaps precisely because of those umbilical ties by water and rail. A catastrophic fire in 1871 left 90,000 homeless, but with water supplies, sewage system and railways largely unaffected, there was an unsought opportunity to build a new city fit for the industrial revolution.

    The industries that developed as a result of Chicago's geographical advantages were obviously another powerful magnet to disaffected rural southerners. At the railheads were the huge stockyards supplying the meat-processing factories, and the processing of other foodstuffs grew in their wake. The steel mills spawned factories producing all kinds of metal products, among them furniture, machine tools and railroad components. There were petrol refineries in the area, and Chicago also developed as a centre for 'the print', with industries ranging from paper manufacturing to publishing. By 1900 the city was established as an economic and industrial hub of inland North America.

    Mike Rowe, in his celebrated Chicago Blues: the City and the Music, identifies a couple of more esoteric reasons why Chicago would have seemed familiar and attractive to blacks in the South. It was the home of the crusading black newspaper the Defender, which was widely circulated in the South and at one time actively encouraged migration to Chicago, and also the base of the huge mail-order firms Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, the chief suppliers of consumer durables to isolated farm workers, paid for at a few cents a week.

    And as far as blues players were concerned, Chicago's magnet grew ever more powerful. Big Bill Broonzy in the 1930s, Muddy Waters in the years immediately following the Second World War, the explosion of Chicago blues clubs, record labels and stars in the 1950s — these were convincing endorsements.


One certainty about enacting Prohibition law is that it will do nothing to satisfy the public's thirst. A situation is simply created whereby the state renounces its right to liquor taxes and hands the exploitation over to gangsters instead. It is surely no coincidence that the cities where jazz and blues flourished in the years after Prohibition came into effect — New Orleans and Kansas City, for example — were those where the local authorities were sometimes inclined to take a relaxed, even an entrepreneurial, attitude towards this problem. It was good for the tourist trade and for the local economy, and it kept everybody happy.

    Nowhere was this more marked than in Chicago — Al Capone's Chicago. The house parties -- often called 'rent parties' as there was an entrance fee allegedly to help towards the host's housing costs, though it also provided a supply of moonshine liquor — and the illicit clubs and dives that sprang up to supply a demand for strong drink and hot music, were a ready-made platform for the blues singers attracted to the city, and these clubs survived the repeal of Prohibition law.

    Many of the biggest names in pre-Second World War blues made Chicago their home, following the migratory routes we have already charted. Others, notably the great partnership from the early years of the blues, pianist Leroy Carr and guitarist Scrapper Blackwell, were frequent and influential visitors. Perhaps the most important resident figure in the early years was Big Bill Broonzy, a 'king of the clubs' who only renounced his title with the success of Muddy Waters in the late 1940s. Broonzy's reaction to the electric group sound that developed in Waters's wake in the early 1950s was to reinvent himself as a folk-blues entertainer playing to white audiences. He made pioneering trips to Europe, including London, beginning in 1951. He would regale his audiences with folk tales like 'John Henry', sing work songs from the distant past, and bring a jazzy tinge to such blues-based standards as 'Careless Love' and 'Glory of Love'.

    This was a deliberate career decision, an assumption that this was the version of black music that his newly found white audience wanted (and, judging by the poor reception given to Muddy Waters and his heavily amplified blues when he first played in Britain in 1958, Broonzy was probably right). His skill and versatility, his engaging manner as an entertainer, and the shrewdness with which he exploited this market help to protect him from charges of an 'Uncle Tom' attitude towards black culture, though his material was a long way from the racy blues of pre-war Chicago. So there were now, in effect, two Broonzys, the pre-war Chicago star and the postwar coffee-house hero.

    Broonzy was born in Scott, Mississippi in 1893. He was one of the 17 children of parents who had been born as slaves. He grew up across the border in Arkansas, worked as a farm-hand from childhood and learned to play the violin. In his late teens and early twenties Broonzy combined work as a dance fiddler with that of the itinerant preacher. After moving to Chicago in 1920, he was influenced into taking up the guitar by local performer Papa Charlie Jackson, and from 1924 was himself working in the clubs.

    He recorded extensively, both as featured artist and accompanist, from 1927 onwards, though in commercial terms his career had a number of false starts before he really broke through in the 1930s. His appeal was strongest among those who, like him and a gathering tide of rural blacks, were migrating to the North, and many of his songs examined this phenomenon and its problems and frustrations. He did in fact cut one session for Chess, in 1953, and a single of 'Little City Woman'/'Lonesome' was released, but by this time he had moved into the coffee houses while the label was still catering for the black audience. Broonzy died of throat cancer in 1958, back home in Chicago.

    Second in significance, and even more important in developing the postwar sound that, as we shall see, Chess above all represented, was John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson. He was the original Sonny Boy — despite the protestations of the other 'Sonny Boy', who was born Aleck (or Alec) Miller and was in fact an older man who shrewdly delayed his move to Chicago until John Lee was dead. Williamson was the first virtuoso of the blues harmonica, and was thus the musical father of Chess's Little Walter and a whole generation of harmonica stylists. His forceful singing and an impressive catalogue of songs added to his influence on such younger men as Junior Wells and Billy Boy Arnold.

    Clearly the harmonica had always been a natural instrument for adoption by blues musicians — it is cheap, portable and comparatively straightforward when it comes to coaxing a rudimentary sound to accompany the lyric. But Williamson showed that it could be more, a pocket brass section that could punctuate the words with a riff, fill out the chords, spiral off into an inventive solo and take a worthy place at the front of the bandstand. Playing a harmonica tuned to the key of the second chord in a blues progression placed the emphasis more on sucking than blowing, and this enabled him to bend and slur to great effect the 'blue' notes — the term used to describe the occurrence of a minor interval when a major interval seems imminent. This style soon became the standard blues technique for the instrument.

    Williamson was born in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1914, worked down South with Sleepy John Estes from a very young age and moved to Chicago when he was 20. Like his friend Broonzy, he recorded both as front-liner and accompanist, and with such songs as 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl' he began to lay down the catalogue of distinctively postwar Chicago blues, the immediate forerunners of the Chess sound. Williamson was a heavy and gregarious drinker, universally liked among the blues fraternity for his generosity of both wallet and spirit. Tragically, when he left the Plantation Club on 1 June 1948 he was mugged and brutally beaten, and died of his injuries. His body was carried back home to Jackson for burial.

    One of the great blues veterans who made Chicago his base — though he also spent many years in St Louis — was Lonnie Johnson, born in New Orleans in 1889. He was one of the most sophisticated of the early blues guitar stylists, and indeed by no means limited himself to the blues. On the one hand he could be employed to give structure and a touch of class to the field hollers of Texas Alexander; on the other he would be playing jazz with Louis Armstrong, as on a 1927 date in Chicago. By this time he was already well travelled, his excursions including, perhaps uniquely for a blues man of the time, a visit to England with a touring revue towards the end of the First World War.

    He worked with Bessie Smith in the South and had his own radio show in New York, before returning to Chicago in 1937. His versatility and legendary reputation enabled him to return to music after the rude blast of 1950s Chicago r&b and rock 'n' roll had temporarily made him redundant, and indeed his last performance, before dying of a stroke in 1970, was a gig with Buddy Guy in his final home town, Toronto.

    In the 1930s Washboard Sam, born in 1910 in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas and a Chicago resident from 1932, was almost as prolific a recording artist as Broonzy, with whom he often worked. Fittingly, his last great moment on record was a 1953 Chess recording of the double-entendre standard 'Diggin' My Potatoes', where his verve and good humour make up for the somewhat limited nature of his chosen musical instrument. This was cut at the same session as Broonzy's only Chess single, and Broonzy provided the accompaniment. Sam toured Europe in 1964 and died in Chicago in 1966.

    John A 'James' Williamson, born in Somerville, Tennessee in 1910, was renamed Homesick James after his early-50s Chicago recording 'Homesick' — he had settled there at the age of 20. He was by many accounts, including his own, a cousin of Elmore James, who was himself the electric inheritor of Robert Johnson's passionate singing and piercing bottleneck-guitar style. Homesick perpetuated the Elmore sound after the latter's death of a heart attack in 1963 — at Homesick's Chicago house.

    Two more legendary names from the early years of the blues helped to define the pre-war Chicago sound — Tampa Red and Memphis Minnie. The stage names of both identified their southern roots, but they were predominantly Chicago artists. Tampa Red links the days of the medicine shows with postwar Chicago blues. Born in Smithville, Georgia, in 1900 or 1904 and growing up in Tampa, Florida, the young redhead had developed a distinctive bottleneck style by the time of his arrival in Chicago in 1925, and was billed as 'The Guitar Wizard'.

    He teamed up with pianist Thomas A Dorsey, and they scored one of the biggest hits of the first decade of the recorded blues with their 1928 version of 'It's Tight Like That', as much a double entendre as it sounds. They were the originators of so-called 'hokum' music — goodtime, rude and up-tempo, and Red often doubled on kazoo to stress the jug-band feel to their style. Dorsey soon went to the other extreme and turned to sacred music, but 20 years after that first hit Tampa Red was fronting a prototype Chicago blues band, playing an important role in defining the 'tough' r&b sound of the city, and recording with such later Chess sidemen as bassist 'Big' Crawford and drummer Odie Payne. In between times he had formed another significant partnership, with Atlanta-born pianist Big Maceo, and this proved to be one of the most popular acts in 1940s Chicago.

    Tampa Red's career effectively finished with the death of his wife in the mid-50s, by which time Big Maceo was also dead, and he took to the bottle, although there were a couple of unsatisfactory 1960 comeback albums. He died in Chicago in 1981. His legacy is largely as a writer, above all for one of the greatest of all slow blues, 'It Hurts Me Too', best known in the impassioned, eerie version that gave Elmore James his last, posthumous, hit.

Memphis Minnie was born in the New Orleans suburb of Algiers in 1897, established her career in the city that gave her a stage name, and died there in 1973. However, from around 1930 until her retirement from full-time music in the mid-50s, she was based in Chicago. She formed musical partnerships with two of her husbands, Kansas Joe McCoy and Little Son Joe, but outshone both as a musician. Her acoustic guitar style foreshadowed the development of electric blues in some of her techniques — dextrous single-note runs and sustained, bent notes among them, and she later took to electricity with enthusiasm. She cut the best-known version of the double-entendre 'Me and My Chauffeur Blues', and was a clear influence on such white blues revivalists as Bonnie Raitt and Jo Ann Kelly.

    These were the most notable names that made pre-war Chicago such a vibrant blues town. And this was the milieu into which the immigrant Chess brothers, moving onwards from the liquor business to clubs to recording, arrived and took to like ducks to water.

    Theirs was not, however, the first record company to be established in the city. Two years ahead of them, in 1945, came Mercury Records. This label, which since 1972 has been part of the vast PolyGram conglomerate, was never exclusively a blues imprint, but it is significant that its first release was 'It's Just the Blues' by the Four Jumps of Jive. Driving the song along was the stand-up bass of Willie Dixon, soon to become the musical hub around which Chess Records — Chicago blues, indeed — would revolve. Mercury turned immediately to the blues, sensing that, with war just over and troops returning home, there would be a revived demand for ethnic styles of music.

    Mercury had a firm foothold in the market since one of the founding partners, Irving Green, already owned pressing and manufacturing plants in Chicago and St Louis. The Four Jumps of Jive went into the studio on 12 September, and other 1945 Mercury sessions included ones with Sippie Wallace (Lonnie Johnson was her backing guitarist in Albert Ammons' group) and the Texan pioneer of electric blues guitar T-Bone Walker. By November Mercury was claiming to be pressing over a million discs a month.

    Although based in Chicago, where early sessions featured such artists as Broonzy, Sunnyland Slim, Memphis Slim, Robert Jr Lockwood and the more sophisticated Dinah Washington, Mercury was truly national in its coverage of the blues. It cut, for example, Jay McShann's great 'jump blues' outfit in Texas, the founder of New Orleans r&b Professor Longhair in his home town, Lightnin' Hopkins in Houston, Johnny Otis and T-Bone Walker in Los Angeles, and later Eddie Vinson and Screamin' Jay Hawkins in New York. And so it remained not just the first but the most comprehensive of the postwar labels devoting a large part of their energies to the blues.

    Until Leonard Chess imposed himself on the scene, the most important record man in Chicago was Lester Melrose, although Melrose's rival, J Mayo Williams, was particularly influential at Mercury, while Melrose's work defined the 'Bluebird sound' on the label of that name. These men were freelances with strong contacts and ties to particular record companies. They acted as talent scouts and producers, and were also managers to the extent that artists usually had a contract with them rather than the record label. But by the middle of the 1940s customer tastes were beginning to move away from the classic 30s-rooted blues styles that their work represented, towards more adventurous independent labels, towards the West-Coast jump blues, and — when Muddy Waters formed his alliance with Chess — towards his downhome Delta sound. What Chess was to provide in particular, therefore, was a more specific focus for the music, one in tune with changing moods, of the Delta blues in its new northern home.

    In the process Leonard Chess became the new boss of Chicago music, displacing Melrose and Williams. Of all the major blues artists of the day the only one to have no contact whatsoever with Chess — outside his regular stable, and outside those like John Lee Hooker who would occasionally cut records for him — was Jimmy Reed, whom Chess turned down and who became the commercial mainstay of Chess's main local rival, Vee-Jay Records.


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