Present at the Creation
How the Chess brothers invented rock 'n' roll
Sep 11, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 48 • By DANIEL WATTENBERG
Chess Records released its first record fifty years ago. And while the legendary Chicago label achieved its greatest success in the supposedly somnolent decade of the 1950s, the popular music of the 1960s is almost inconceivable without Chess. For without the recordings of Chess artists -- bluesmen Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and pro-to-rockers Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley -- who would the Rolling Stones and dozens of other pop groups have stolen from?
In her new book Spinning Blues Into Gold, Nadine Cohodas tells the story of brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, immigrant Jews from Poland, and the record company they built.
Inevitably, Cohodas covers some familiar ground. Who is not familiar with the story of how the acoustic Delta blues went electric after migrating to the industrial north? Or how the rise of rock 'n' roll swept aside racial barriers in popular music and, incidentally, relegated the blues to a vernacular corner of the record business?
But to this familiar material, Cohodas brings a fresh perspective. Her book is the story of the mid-century revolution in American popular music from the vantage point of the much maligned label owners: road-weary white entrepreneurs like the Chess brothers, with soup stains on their neckties and coffee rings on their copies of Cash Box.
The pragmatic, unglamorous (mostly Jewish) independent label owners of the time have not fared well in the histories. They have been depicted typically as cunning parasites who cheated artists of royalties -- when, that is, they weren't diluting the artistry of these natural geniuses in the crass pursuit of profits. The period did have its share of scoundrels (Morris Levy of Roulette Records and Nat Tarnopol of Brunswick Records come to mind). But more typical, one suspects, were men like Leonard Chess. In his famous attack on rock 'n' roll in The Closing of the American Mind, Alan Bloom asserted that the Left had hypocritically exempted rock from its otherwise comprehensive indictment of "late capitalism." In fact, a belief in exploitative label owners has long been axiomatic. Under the sway of this dogma, wide credence was given to crackpot legends such as Rolling Stone Keith Richards's baseless claim that on a visit to the Chess studio he saw Muddy Waters perched on a stepladder in workman's overalls painting the ceiling.
Yes, Leonard Chess was a driven, unsentimental, penny-pinching philistine, goading and autocratic. But he was loyal to his musicians, a loyalty approaching familial tenderness toward the artists who carried the company in its heyday. He was honest -- as he had to be, for a businessman working in a small and insular profession depended on mutual trust. In a nation still marked by segregation, he mixed easily with black artists and DJs, placed blacks in positions of authority in his company, and donated sizable sums to the black community in which he made his money.
Did he equitably share the proceeds with his artists? The relevant paper trail has long since vanished, but it is worth remembering an often overlooked fact of the record business. Records made artists into stars, and while the label made money off the records they released, it made none from concerts, club dates, and other venues of popular music stardom.
Bo Diddley, for example, appeared in the "Bo Knows" television ad campaign as late as the mid-1980s. But had it not been for Leonard Chess, Bo Diddley might still have been known by his real name of Ellas McDaniel, and his first hit would have been called not "Bo Diddley," but "Uncle John." And it is certain that "Uncle John" would not have received the airplay that lifted it onto the charts in 1955, had Chess not instructed McDaniel to clean up the original lyrics: "Uncle John got corn ain't never been shucked / Uncle John got daughters ain't never been . . . to school."
Leonard and Phil Chess were born Lejzor and Fiszel Czyz in Motele, a desolate Jewish town in Poland. Leonard, the flinty and professionally dominant brother, was born in 1917. Phil, the more personable one, was born in 1921. With their mother and sister, they emigrated to America in 1928 to join their father, who had arrived in Chicago several years before.