July 16, 2009 – 4:21 am

In 2008, the biopic Cadillac Records was a celebration of Chess Records but in 1997, when the legendary Chicago blues label celebrated its 50th anniversary, it was something to shout about. Gerrie Lim talks to the Grand Marshall of the blues - Marshall Chess. The following article was published in BigO #141 (September 1997).

Fifty years is a long time for anything, but to have 50 years of great music shape the sound of popular music, and influence popular culture on a larger scale, is truly amazing. But that’s what Chess Records did, and 1997 marks the release of what’s probably the most remarkable slew of reissues since the compact disc was invented. Behold then, the creme de la creme of the godfathers of rock.

There are benchmarks in the evolution of rock music and it’s safe to say that things could’ve been a whole lot different if the Rolling Stones hadn’t discovered Muddy Waters, or covered Howling Wolf’s Little Red Rooster. Or if Cream hadn’t covered Howlin’ Wolf’s Spoonful. Or if Chuck Berry never recorded Maybelline, which started the whole ball rockin’ and rollin’.

The other artists on the Chess label still read like a who’s who of music, from the blues to gospel to R&B (when it was still in its undiluted form, unlike most of today’s urban dregs) - Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Witherspoon, Aretha Franklin, Koko Taylor, Etta James, Fontella Bass, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Little Milton, Little Walter, Memphis Slim, Ahmad Jamal, Ramsey Lewis, Willie Dixon, to name some.

Myself, I saw Willie Dixon play in a small club in Los Angeles just before he died, and I know that it will be forever etched in my memory for the goosebumps it gave me. He was incredible, and his legacy now exists in 32-bit digitally remastered glory (I highly recommend Willie Dixon: The Chess Box). All throughout 1997, MCA/Universal will release these recordings, called the Chess Legendary Masters Series, many on CD for the first time, in homage to a great label that grew from humble beginnings in Chicago in 1947, originally as Aristocrat Records, to henceforth influence generations of musicians and music lovers.

That generational axe is still swung by Marshall Chess, son of label founder Leonard Chess. For 16 years, Marshall worked with his father and his uncle Phil, doing everything from pressing records to loading trucks to producing over 100 Chess projects and, eventually, in 1969, heading Chess as its president. Now 55, he still controls the music publishing of the label and, in a phone conversation from New York, still reflects passionately about it.

When someone says, “Congratulations on the 50th Anniversary of Chess Records,” what’s the first thing you think of?

That time flies. (laughs) Last month I went to seven countries in Europe and we had last week the 50th celebration in Chicago, the week before in Los Angeles. The thing is that it’s amazing to me what my family did, all the music that came out of a very small period that affected the sound of rock music so much. And I realise that blues music and rock ‘n’ roll is such an international thing now, you know.

The legacy of Chess Records has been in exporting the blues and black American culture overseas. Do you find this amazing now, when you think about it?

Yeah, it’s very amazing. It’s amazing because no one tried to do it - it just happened. People often ask me how come there’s no photographs or motion picture footage of that period. We never realised that that was happening. It was just a family business.

And I always say that the basis of the whole thing was that my father and uncle were really from Poland. They were immigrants to America. And the black people in Chicago were immigrants from the South, from Mississippi and from the Deep South. And they both came to Chicago really for the same purpose, which was to make money and have a better life. So there was a very symbiotic relationship.

There’s a lot of immigrant feeling in blues, too, since a lot of the music is about being displaced and disenfranchised.

That’s true. It’s amazing, but there are two million black people in Chicago and back then in the ’40s a million of them came because in Mississippi and Tennessee they couldn’t make any money at all. To come to Chicago and make a dollar an hour, that was big money then. And they all came to Chicago because there was one railroad that came up, and most of the real Southern blacks that came to Chicago did not know how to read or write, just like the immigrants from Europe. So music carried a lot of the messages that were happening in that small circle.

And then, years later, people like the Rolling Stones and the Kinks and the Yardbirds, the early English groups, came along. They were really just collectors and fans. In the beginning they just tried to copy the sound, and it ended up coming out their own way.

I was just thinking about this last week, because Ronnie Lane just died. Did you have any association with him and the Small Faces?

Well, I just knew him, you know. Not any actual working thing. One of my very first jobs at Chess Records was setting up the international department, so I was lucky enough to be in England during the whole beginning of that whole rock scene in the ’60s, with the Beatles and the Stones and the Yardbirds and the Faces.

After you left Chess, you founded and ran the Stones’ own label, Rolling Stones Records, for seven years. Do you think that someday somebody should make a movie out of your life?

Many people have asked and many people have talked about it. But I want to write it, you know. I’ve already got a lot of it in outline form, but what I’m planning to do sometime in the next five years or so is write all that, write about that blues period and how it was, being raised in the heart of a black record company. And then there’s the Rolling Stones experience. Maybe that will lead to it, you know.

I find that it’s really amazing because again I didn’t chase any of those things. I didn’t ask to be born to that family, and even the Stones happened by pure accident, nothing I’d ever even thought a possibility. So it’s really strange, how both of them interconnected.

Why was the Stones thing an accident?

Chess Records was sold and my father died shortly after, and I was made President. But the people that bought it were very corporate. It was a corporate mentality that moved into a family-owned business, a very special kind of business, without really understanding the business, only the figures. So I quit. It was horrible, just a horrible nightmare working with those people. All they were concerned with was the money. They didn’t understand anything at all about the music business.

And a guy called me up out of the clear blue sky. He owned a small label, Blue Thumb Records. This guy, Bob Krasnow, eventually became the president of Elektra Records. I knew him for years and he called me up and he said, “I heard that you quit Chess and I just heard the Rolling Stones want to leave their label. Do you want to do something to try to get ‘em?” I thought about it for a few days and I told him: “I don’t really think we’ll work well together. Our egos would get in the way and I think it could be difficult. But do you mind if I call Mick Jagger?”

So he gave me the number and I called up Mick Jagger. It was as simple as that. I had known Jagger because the Stones had come into the Chess studios to record their second album and they even named a track, one of their few instrumentals, after our address - 2120 South Michigan - so I had known him and I had helped set up those recording sessions.

He said, “Come over. I can’t leave England now. I’ve just had some trouble with customs, but why don’t you come over and see me?” And that’s how it began. I went over and we decided that it could be a good marriage, and then we formed Rolling Stones Records with the tongue-and-lips design. I went forward and put seven years into doing that, which was great. It was a great and interesting period of my life.

Is it true that the Rolling Stones went into the studio and found their big hero Muddy Waters in there, painting the ceiling or something? I heard this story, reputedly originating from Keith Richards.

You know what? I’ve heard that story too and I’ve been asked that too, and I would never believe that in a million years. And the reason is that if you knew Muddy Waters, you wouldn’t believe it. Because Muddy Waters was the most regal man that I’ve probably ever met in my life other than my father. He was a leader, so he wouldn’t do that. It just wouldn’t be in his personality. But he was there. The Chess studio was like an extended home, so there were always artists around in the building. We were in that neighborhood where they lived, they were coming by all the time, so I wouldn’t doubt that they saw him there. But painting? No way.

How old are you now? Do you have children in the business?

I’m 55.1 have two children, a 15-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl. My son is very deep into music and he’s now working with me in the music publishing business. Even though Chess was sold, the actual songs weren’t. So I still represent the songs of Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Howling Wolf, all those artists - we have 10,000 songs! So I’m still involved, you know, and my kid’s been working with me. I wouldn’t be surprised, you know, if he goes into it. I wouldn’t ever push him into it. I got into it because I wanted to be around my father. In that era, it wasn’t a cool thing to be in the music business - it didn’t even exist!

Your father reportedly once said that “if Chuck Berry had been white, he would’ve been bigger than Elvis.” Do you agree?

Yes. What he really meant was that at that time, when Chuck Berry had his first hit, Maybelline, and in the time that followed, at the beginning anyway, a lot of the big white radio stations would not play music of black artists. That’s what he was really saying. What really made an artist big, especially in that era, was radio play. And they just wouldn’t play black artists. Chuck Berry appealed to white kids but his exposure was limited, because even though he became a star and had big hits, many of the big stations never played him. Because he was black.

But that’s how you broke through, really, with Chuck Berry.

Yeah, that was the really big breakthrough, Chuck Berry. And not only for us, but for the whole independent music business. After that, things began to change and they began to play black artists. And, of course, they do today. The ironic thing is that Chuck came to Chess Records not wanting to be a rock ‘n’ roller. He wanted to be a blues singer.

He was a hairdresser at the time and he loved blues music. He came to Chicago with a tape of his tunes and he went to see Muddy Waters perform. After the show, he asked Muddy Waters: “What can I do? I have a tape and I want to make a record.” And Muddy sent him over to my father. They let him in and they put the tape in, and the first song was a straight blues song called Wee Wee Hours. Then the next one came on. Now my father and my uncle were always looking for a different sound.

This was 1965 and, in that era, the black records we had sold 20,000 or 30,000, they weren’t million sellers then. But the different stuff was what was catching on. So they heard this song and it was called Ida Red and it had a whole different rhythm and beat. But it had a horrible lyric. So they sent Chuck home to go rewrite it, and he did. He came back the next week and Ida Red was changed to Maybelline. And that’s how it began. He just wrote a new song to the same rhythm and beat.

Are you still in touch with Chuck Berry?

I still am. I’m his publisher. Three months ago, we met for the first time in years. He’s a very eccentric man. I had sent him some business papers a year and a half ago, and all he had to do was sign them and he would get a very substantial cheque. But he never did. You know all the stories about him - like he doesn’t need the money and he doesn’t ever know what he’s going to do, he’s crazy, and all that.

All of a sudden one day, they called saying he wanted to come to New York and pick up the cheque and sign the papers. So we met out at the airport in New York. We spent five hours there in the First Class lounge. So yeah, I’m still in touch with him. He’s just turned 70 this year and he’s great. He’s as crazy, as eccentric, as ever.

When you look back at the staggering output of Chess Records over the years and reassess all these reissues, do you have a particular favourite recording?

I don’t have a favourite recording. But there is a group of six artists that I just love. They were so special. I’d have to start with Muddy Waters, who was the first artist I ever met as a young kid, and then Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter - who invented that amplified harmonica style, he was a real genius - and Sonny Boy Williamson.

That little group, each one of them was so different and so original. They’re like the Beethovens and Bachs of rock ‘n’ roll. Without those guys, rock ‘n’ roll would’ve sounded differently. It would probably exist, but it would be a different thing, you know, and that’s what’s amazing. You know, when people ask me what’s my proudest achievement, I always say it’s strange but it’s what I told my son when he was much younger.

About 10 years ago, the US launched two satellites into deep space, Voyager One and Voyager Two, and these satellites are out there, going to the ends of the universe. And they put on them these metal discs representing the culture of the Earth. And one of the things, along with Beethoven and pictures by Picasso and the Mona Lisa, was Johnny B Goode by Chuck Berry.

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