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Films Chronicle the Chicago Producers Who Brought Blues to the Masses

Alessandro Nivola, left, and Jon Abrahams as brothers Leonard and Phil Chess in the movie
Alessandro Nivola, left, and Jon Abrahams as brothers Leonard and Phil Chess in the movie "Who Do You Love," which chronicles their rise to record producers whose label included Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Etta James. (Alexander/mitchell Productions)
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Zaks also found a lot of good to say.

"It's an American success story," Zaks said of Leonard Chess, who is played by Alessandro Nivola in "Who Do You Love." "He was drawn to this music. I don't know if he had an affinity for it. I have to believe he did and loved it on some level. But he was drawn to market it, sell it and godfather it, and make a good living doing it."

Leonard's son, Marshall Chess, was a consultant on "Cadillac Records" and has an executive music producer credit on "Who Do You Love," in which he's portrayed as a young boy. "It's a great subject -- about white-black friendships and blues and the birth of rock-and-roll with Chuck and Bo. I loved all that, but it's just a snapshot. There's too much that happened for just one movie."

Which may be why there are two.

What "Cadillac Records" suggests is a kind of musical Wild West: No one had so ambitiously tried to record and promote black blues the way Leonard Chess did. Arguably, no other form of popular music has had such a profound effect on American life, not just culturally but socially and politically. "It could be said that Barack Obama went to Chicago because Howlin' Wolf went to Chicago," said Wright. "There's a connection there, between the community these guys were part of, and the people Barack went there to serve.

"These guys were superheroes, in everything but the cape and the mask," he added. "They had nothing. Muddy Waters was a Mississippi plantation worker, a half-minute away from being a slave. Yet they managed to craft music that had universal resonance."

When Marshall Chess talks about his father's early years, he evokes a dangerous world. "One of my earliest memories of the club," he said, referring to the Chess brothers' Mocambo Lounge, "is going there with my father, and gunshots ringing out in the back and my uncle throwing me over the bar and lying on top of me with my face against that whiskey-soaked floor. I can smell it to this day."

Arc Music, the publishing arm of Chess, has settled over the years with the families of such greats as Waters, Dixon, Jimmy Reed, Little Milton and Jimmy Rogers, mostly over publishing rights to songs.

Marshall Chess says his father and uncle had to make "their own rules" and that much of who owed what to whom was written on slips of paper. "Nobody ever talks about the money my father and uncle handed out to the various artists, the advances and loans. . . . as far as I ever saw, they never took more than they deserved."

Cameron declined to respond to Chess's argument. He says of the artists he knew: "They were ripped off."


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