Chicago had long been a destination for African Americans fleeing oppression in southern states, where cotton was king and where Blacks were used to work the fields, first as slaves and later as sharecroppers. Such escapees from the South could find employment opportunities and higher wages in such northern cities as Chicago and Detroit, where industrialization was booming. Blues singers like Muddy Waters, who electrified the blues, found Chicago to be quite accommodating during the 1940s. One could probably say that the Chicago environment got Muddy’s mojo working.
But Chicago blues really didn’t get hot until blues record labels were established there. Blues records could then be cut and distributed to radio stations, which helped popularize the genre. The hottest of all Chicago music labels in the early post-WWII era was Chess Records, established in 1950. Founded and run by two Jewish immigrant brothers from Poland, Leonard and Phil Chess, the company produced and released many singles and albums regarded as central to the blues (and later rock) music canons. Musician and critic Cub Koda described Chess Records as “America’s greatest blues label.”
In 1951, the Chess brothers began an association with Sam Phillips, of the Memphis Recording Service, the forerunner of Sun Records, which later recorded such rock luminaries as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. One of the most important blues artists that came out of Memphis, however, was blues legend Howlin’ Wolf, who stayed with the Chess label until his death in 1976. Many songs created by Chess artists were later covered by many famous rock-and-roll artists, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Eric Clapton. Musical figures created for Chess by Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and others were the basis of much subsequent rock and roll.
The 2008 biopic Cadillac Records, starring Arien Brody as Leonard Chess, was a loose retelling of the Chess Records story, but this “based on a true story” got a lot of facts wrong. For instance, Leonard’s brother Phil does not appear in the flick and his name is not even mentioned. One has to wonder what the real Phil Leonard (died at 95 in 2016) thought of this movie. There is no proof that Leonard had a sexual relationship with Etta James nor was Minnesota Fats Etta’s father, as the movie suggested. Maybe Robert Wilonsky, writing in The Dallas Observer, hits the main point here: “Fabrications in the name of movie myth-making are, of course, to be expected from a genre that demands condensing lives into a handful of Defining Episodes; all biopics reduce and trivialize.” Inaccuracies aside, Cadillac Records is a very entertaining movie experience, especially the acting and singing of Beyoncé Knowles who plays Etta James.
Back to the real facts: “In the mid-1960s, Chess relocated to a much larger building, the former home of Revere Camera Company at 320 E. 21st Street, the label’s final Chicago home. Shortly before the death of Leonard Chess in 1969, the brothers sold the company,” explains Wikipedia. “By 1972, the only part of Chess Records still operating in Chicago was the recording studio, Ter-Mar Studios. Following the sale of Chess to GRT, Phil left the label to run radio station WVON.” Phil Chess told Vanity Fair in 2008 that there’s a perfectly logical explanation for his and his brother’s affinity for the blues. “We’d been around it all our lives,” he says. “We came from Poland in 1928. That was blues all the time.”
Irony is not lost on another interesting historical twist. The original Chess Records building is now the home of Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation which labors away at making sure Black artists get their due in terms of music royalties. The title Cadillac Records is a subtle joke in itself as Blues musicians in the early days were often given Cadillacs instead of royalties, but they did not realize the automobiles had been bought with the royalty money they should have received in the first place. They would have gotten much more in terms of royalties had they just said no to the cars. To paraphrase a famous line from another movie, they should have said “just give me the money!”
Beyoncé, as Etta James, sings “I’d Rather Go Blind”