The Chess Legacy: Quintessential Blues

By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 5, 2008

It's September 1957. A school integration crisis is erupting in Little Rock. The last game is being played at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field. Elvis Presley and Pat Boone have Top 10 hits. And, in Chicago, harmonica virtuoso Sonny Boy Williamson is cutting tracks at his record company's studio.

What's the next song called? he's asked.

" 'Little Village,' " Williamson mutters.


" 'Little Village'!" he barks, adding enough ripe expletives that a volley of vulgarity is launched between the musician and the man in the booth. "You can name it 'Yo Mammy' if you want," Williamson concludes. The backup band laughs. And then the song kicks off.

The man in the booth is Leonard Chess, founder of what remains the quintessential outlet of American blues music. Chess Records, the label at the center of the film "Cadillac Records," which opens today, gave the world Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and a slew of subordinate blues artists who constituted the electrified blues sound synonymous with Chicago.

To judge from the "Little Village" exchange (it's on the "Essential Sonny Boy Williamson" box set), Chess's relationship with his artists was fraught with antagonism, frustration, a certain affection. And his is a legacy that pretty well mirrors the history of black music and white ownership in America. Part of that legacy are the lawsuits that have followed in the wake of Chess's death in 1969.

"The musicians never got an accounting," said Scott Cameron, who managed blues legends Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon before their deaths, in 1983 and '92 respectively. His Cameron Organization has spent two decades recovering royalties for artists or their survivors. "Muddy once said: 'They bought me a Cadillac. If they'd paid me what they owed me, I could have bought my own.' "

The Cadillacs play key scenes in "Cadillac Records" and a new film, "Who Do You Love," by director Jerry Zaks, in which the Broadway veteran chronicles the rise of Chess and his brother Phil from Illinois junkyard operators to nightclub owners to record producers. ("Who Do You Love" was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and is still seeking a distributor.)

While Zaks's version doesn't dwell on Chess's controversial accounting practices, it doesn't avoid the issue entirely. Neither does Darnell Martin, who wrote and directed "Cadillac Records," which stars Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess, Beyoncé Knowles as Etta James and Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters.

"I do bring it up," Martin said in an interview this week in New York. "But what I was more interested in was Leonard's giving the Cadillacs in lieu of payment, and the plantation mentality owing the store so much you can't get on top again. And Wolf saying, 'Pay me what you owe me,' and in the end Muddy coming to the realization that after all those years that 'I've been screwed -- I stood with the wrong guy.' "

Martin added, "I was interested in flaws, and dishonesty and the humanity within the characters. What makes Leonard likable is that Etta liked him. . . . Muddy doesn't have bad things to say about him. Chuck Berry does not have bad things to say about Leonard Chess."

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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