chess records

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”

cultural appropriation

Musicians play the songs of other musicians all the time, calling this style “covers” or “tributes.” Never mind that they don’t ask permission or, heaven forbid, offer compensation. They just go ahead and do it anyway and there is normally no blowback from either the original composer or the first musician who recorded the song. How many people before 2016 realized they were breaking the copyright law when they sang “Happy Birthday?” They were supposed to have compensated the original artist (however, since 2016 the tune has been placed in the public domain).

What is more serious is when an artist just outright steals the work of another and uses his or her own name on the new recording. Even worse is, say, when a White musician pinches the recording of a Black blues artist, re-records it under his or her own name and does not even give a dime or a nod to the creator of the work. Sadly, this happened often in the history of blues music as these White thieves knew there would be no repercussions as most early Black blues performers did not have the finances to hire lawyers to fight back.

This concerns cultural appropriation, some critics say, which means using material from another culture without giving credit or compensation. Freelance journalist and editor of BBCNewsbeat Irahman Jones writes (2016) about Elvis Presley’s cover of “Hound Dog,” previously recorded by black artist Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, though it was written by the White team of Leiber and Stoller: “With a song like this, it’s easy to see why Elvis often gets levelled with accusations of appropriating black music. Why is he seen as the father of rock ’n’ roll music when he didn’t invent it? Why did it take a good old white boy to popularize a genre [the Blues] which black Americans had been playing for years, and in the process become one of the richest people on earth? It’s clear to see cultural appropriation going on here; Elvis clearly stole music from the black culture of the time, passed it off as his own, and hugely profited from it himself.”

“Hound Dog” stayed at No. 1 for 11 weeks in 1956, ultimately selling 10 million copies worldwide, making the young Elvis (then 21) a very wealthy man. Thornton’s original version, recorded four years earlier, had sold two million copies, though Big Mama collected only $500. Although “Ball and Chain” was the lead on Thornton’s 1968 album by the same name, the song became a smash hit when it was later appropriated by Janis Joplin. Again, Thornton got no royalties from this misuse of her music.

The Big Mama cases were blatant, but there are many other examples. Take the case of Willie Dixon, the blues bassist who operated out of Chicago. Dixon did fight back when Led Zeppelin stole his song “Whole Lotta Love.” Willie won his 1985 lawsuit against the group and later used the money to start the Blues Heaven Foundation to help Bluesmen get their royalty checks.

Misappropriation is one thing, but authenticity is quite another. Perhaps many white singers are simply performing the blues and not really putting black feelings into the music, some critics suggest. But at the very least, a white performer trying to sing the blues should give recognition to the original artist and make it plain what the content of the blues song was originally referring to, as he or she is morally (but perhaps not legally) supposed to do. However, when a musical genre like the blues suddenly becomes “hot” legalities often get overlooked, all in the interest of making as much money as possible before the market cools.

“Remember that, up until relatively recently, white people wouldn’t buy music performed by Black people, and that Black culture was considered ‘inferior’, ‘strange’, or ‘exotic’. Then white performers repackaged the Blues for a white audience, and suddenly they were respectable, and the origins of the Blues as a culture of resistance and the expression of a particular experience were often erased and denied. And remember that this happened during or not long after segregation… I would say that was cultural appropriation,” writes Yvonne Abburow in the online journal Patheos. By “relatively recently,” Abburow probably meant anytime up until the 1950s.

Like Abburow, a PhD candidate at the University of Florida, Howell Evans, argued that there is something smelly about White discourses on blues history. In his work The Literature of the Blues and Black Cultural Studies (2004), Evans wrote: “The literature of the blues is mostly a white man writing about a black man’s art, and there is more than a taste of paternalism…what this paternalism masks, this worship of the old authentic bluesman, is the guilt that white musicians have in ripping it off.”

Big Mama Thornton sings “Hound Dog Blues”

the Devil’s music

It’s hard to tell exactly when the Blues got saddled with the “devil’s music” moniker. On the other hand it’s much easier to determine why. “Blues was raggedy street music, performed and listened to by the down at the heel segment of society, known for doing lowbrow things like getting drunk on cheap beer, having bar fights, etc. People tend to politicize music, that is they can’t separate the music from its natural habitat. So they thought the people who played, sang, and listened to the blues were influenced by the devil, and by association, the music was also associated with the devil,” opines musician Collen Kitchen.

The downright anti-social behavior of a lot of Blues pioneers added to that perception. Son House, an early Mississippi Delta Bluesman, shot and killed a man who was shooting up the bar he was in, allegedly to protect his date. The Louisiana-born singer Lead Belly, best known for composing and singing “Goodnight Irene,” killed one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight over a woman and stabbed a white man after being released from prison. And then there was the legendary Blues singer Robert Johnson who supposedly sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads for an improved skill on the blues guitar. In “Me and the Devil Blues,” Johnson sings:

“Me and the devil

Was walkin’ side by side

Me and the devil, whooo

Was walking side by side

And I’m gonna beat my woman

Until I get satisfied”

All this negativity notwithstanding, perhaps the greatest contributor to the “devil’s music” stamp came from organized religion, both Black and White. “A large sector of the black community were fiercely religious at the time [early 1900s], and criticized blues artists for subverting the gospel and spiritual tradition in the name of this secular and self-indulgent lifestyle music,” states the Music Fans website. “The criticism came from all sectors of the ‘square’ community, including of course, the white establishment. No one, it seems, wanted to acknowledge or accept what was going on in the underworld of black life.”

Black music had, from early on, been criticized in print as well. One of the earliest published denunciations found is from 1913, when The New York Times defended the fear surrounding ragtime music, a form of the Blues more often associated with jazz. “Decent people in and out of the church are beginning to be alarmed at the crude and vulgar music and loose conduct accompanying it with dances defying all propriety,” the paper wrote. But times have definitely changed and Black traditions like “bump and grind” dancing, twerking, potty-mouthed lyrics and anti-social messages in rap music have not only been normalized but have become all the musical rage.

Books and films have also explained why the Blues got its “devil” label. One of the best books is Giles Oakley’s 1977 The Devils’ Music, which describes the texture of the life that made the Blues possible, and the changing attitudes toward the music. The book is a wholehearted and loving examination of one of America’s most powerful traditions. And then there is the 2008 The Devil’s Music, the first film to document the strange story of notorious shock-rocker Erika Spawn, who was the most infamous woman in the world after her music had been linked by the tabloid press to real-life atrocities.

That film, in alluding to a rock and roll figure, points out the handoff of the “devil’s music” label from the Blues to rock in the post-WWII era of prosperity. Baby-boomers, tired of the very straight music of such crooners as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Andy Williams and polka practitioner ­­Lawrence Welk turned to the more exciting and more danceable tunes of rock pioneers such as Bill Hailey, Little Richard and Buddy Holly. When Elvis Presley single-handedly invented a new musical form called “rockabilly” in the early 1950s by combining Blues, R&B and Western music the acceptance of black influences in white mainstream music was complete.

Elvis’ 1957 hit song “Jailhouse Rock” turned the evolving rock and roll industry on its ear. When Elvis appeared on the nationally televised Ed Sullivan Show for the third and final time on January 6, 1957, the CBS censors would not allow the cameras to show anything below the singer’s waist. They feared that the suggestive gyrations of “Elvis the Pelvis” would sexually stir up young teenaged girls tuning in.

Clinical researcher John Beaton says, “As I remember the word Blues used to be linked to drinking and carousing. The ‘Blues’ was a type of music associated with Honky Tonks and bars which encouraged late Saturday nights and diminished Sunday Church attendance. Throw in the fact it was prevalent in black neighborhoods at a time when being black was all but criminal. In fact ‘Blue laws’ still prohibit people in some states from buying alcohol on Sundays.”

Texas is one of them. Texas law still prohibits sale of liquor for off-premises consumption all day on Sundays and sale of beer and wine for off-premises consumption before 12:01 p.m. on Sundays in some counties. In 1986, there were 62 counties wholly dry, but that number had dropped to seven by 2015. Does this suggest America’s reddest state is loosening up a bit? Good question; something to have a drink on.

Robert Johnson sings “Me and the Devil Blues”

barrel house blues

Of all the different blues forms, barrelhouse may be the bawdiest. Taking its name from early American bars, usually on the outskirts of towns, these small dives served beer and whiskey to their African American (mostly hard laborer) patrons directly from barrels that littered the floor. Almost always featuring a piano, these local bars rocked with an emotional music known as barrelhouse, a blend of jazz and blues that got these patrons up on their feet to dance. Eventually morphing into boogie-woogie—a strident, uninhibited, and forcefully rhythmic new American music—barrelhouse could be played on the guitar as well. Memphis Minnie proved as much in her classical 1934 recording “Drunken Barrel House Blues.” She sang:

“Get me drunk in the mornin’
don’t say one mumblin’ word (2X)
I can’t tell you all about it and I ain’t gon’ tell you nothin’ I heard

Well I believe I’ll get drunk 
tear this old barrelhouse down (2X)
‘cause I ain’t got no money but I can hope all outta town

Get me one more drink
drink and let’s ball and fun (2X)
And I’m gon’ tell everything just as soon as I get back home”

Unlike the more serious blues forms, barrelhouse was aimed more at getting drunk and having fun dancing. “While blues lyrics often deal with personal adversity, the music itself goes far beyond self-pity. The blues is also about overcoming hard luck, saying what you feel, ridding yourself of frustration, letting your hair down, and simply having fun. The best blues is visceral, cathartic, and starkly emotional. From unbridled joy to deep sadness, no form of music communicates more genuine emotion,” writes Ed Kopp on the All About Jazz website. Kopp could have been describing barrelhouse blues with that statement although he was talking about the blues in general.

The liner notes to an album called Barrelhouse Blues explain that the piano-based blues style developed around the same time as ragtime in the late 19th century, and both shared the same syncopated emphasis on the offbeat. Cow Cow Davenport was a real pioneer of the style. His seminal 1928 recording of “Cow Cow Blues” owed much to the ragtime style. “Unlike the guitar, you couldn’t ride the rails or hobo around with a piano on your back, so musicians would have to adapt to whatever beat-up piano was on offer, with the general state of disrepair adding to the rough and unpolished sound in true barrelhouse spirit.” Other popular blues pianists to emerge from the barrelhouse circuit included Jimmy Yancey, Roosevelt Sykes, Cripple Clarence Lofton and Skip James.

Referring to the well-known barrelhouse album mentioned above, the World Music Network website says, “The raucous playing style of the opening track by Speckled Red perfectly sets the scene for this rough and ready world, with his classic ‘The Dirty Dozen’ [1929] being based on a game of exchanges of insults and vulgar remarks that have long been a part of African-American folklore. In some respects a precursor of rap music, he was told to ‘clean it up for the record’.” Here are some of his (cleaner) lyrics:

“Now, I want all you womenfolks to fall in line
Shake your shimmy like I’m shaking mine
You shake your shimmy and you shake it fast
You can’t shake your shimmy, shake your yes, yes, yes

Now you’s a dirty mistreater, robber and a cheater
Slip you in the dozen, your pappy is your cousin
Your mama do the lordy-lord

Yonder go your mama going out across the field
Running and shaking like an automobile
I hollered at your mama and I told her to wait
She slipped away from me like a Cadillac Eight”

Blues historians will recognize that Speckled Red’s style closely resembles another sub-genre of traditional American blues called “hokum,” or “dirty blues,” which uses extended analogies or euphemisms to create sexual innuendoes. Such songs were popular in the late 1920s and 30s. Their suggestive titles like Bo Carter’s “Warm My Wiener” and “Banana in Your Fruit Basket” promised salacious lyrics, and they did not disappoint. Even female blues singers like Bessie Smithtackled cheeky double-entendres with an unmistakably mischievous tone, as can be heard on “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl.” I won’t list any of the often X-rated lyrics here, but you get the idea. Saying the blues has meaning within meanings might be an understatement.

Memphis Minnie sings “Drunken Barrel House Blues”