Chess Records and the Business of Rock & Roll

By Rich Cohen

Norton/Atlas. 220 pp. $22.95

Ever since blues music was popularized in the 1920s, it has occupied a double-edged position in America: first, as one of our few indigenous folk art forms, and second, as a symbol of its own exploitation, of the uneasy ways that art and industry coincide. This is a quintessentially American conflict -- the tension between individual expression and the need to promote it -- but nowhere is it as starkly rendered as in regard to the blues.

Blues, after all, comes weighted not just with issues of commerce and culture but also with the murky overlay of race, which stands at the heart of both the music and its presence in the market -- the strategies by which it has been bought and sold. From Robert Johnson making "race" records in a San Antonio hotel room to contemporary rockers appropriating the iconography of the Mississippi Delta, blues remains emblematic of our empathy and antipathy, the connections and divisions we cannot resolve.

Rich Cohen's "Machers and Rockers: Chess Records and the Business of Rock & Roll" recounts the saga of the blues through the filter of Chess Records, the Chicago label that in the 1950s helped bridge the gap between the music of the Delta and the first, nascent glimmerings of rock.

It was at Chess, Cohen argues, that rock-and-roll was invented, initially with the electric, urban blues of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters -- "This was the first Rock & Roll band," he writes of Waters's combo, "though it was not yet called that. It was the loudest music anyone ever heard" -- then more directly with Chuck Berry's early recordings, which began to appear in 1955.

It's a great story, and Cohen is ideally suited to tell it; a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and author of three previous books, including "Tough Jews," he grew up in the Chicago suburb of Glencoe and writes with the jagged rhythms of the street. Most important, he understands the mythic fabric of the music, the way blues walks a line between the spiritual and the worldly, between Sunday morning and Saturday night. "The crossroads," he writes, "is where Robert Johnson, and a whole generation of singers and songwriters and duckwalkers, chose the juke joint over the church. It is where Rock & Roll made the deal that bought it eternal life -- Rock & Roll will never die -- but that also made it forever the Devil's music. Like Lucifer, it is fallen from heaven, the founders having built those first songs out of choir hymns and spirituals, like dragging the church into the gutter, doing something behind the back of God. That's why many of the pioneers, like Son House, were failed preachers, or, like Little Richard and Solomon Burke and Al Green, went from pulpit to bandstand and back again -- from 'Wop bob a loo bop' to 'Man is born of woman's womb.' "

The notion of the blues as otherworldly is an old one -- as old, in many ways, as the music itself. What sets "Machers and Rockers" apart is Cohen's insistence on giving the subject a more three-dimensional treatment, in which the business of the blues becomes as important as its artistry. For Cohen, this is embodied by Chess Records founder Leonard Chess, "a graspy, grubbing, scheming, plotting vulgarian" who, almost without understanding what he had, turned a specialty label into a multimillion-dollar concern. If, as Cohen notes, Chess never really "got" the music, this worked to his advantage because it meant he could approach it on purely pragmatic terms.

"I never during all those Chess years looked upon my father or my uncle or myself as artists," Chess's son Marshall remembers. "We were businessmen trying to make it. My father wanted to make what black people wanted to buy."

It's a striking statement, not least because it opens a window onto exploitation, which, Cohen acknowledges, is essential to his tale. Over the years, Chess has been vilified for being cheap or worse; in one of his most manipulative deals, he paid Muddy Waters $2,000 to sign a work-for-hire publishing contract that gave Chess the copyrights to all his songs. "Life at the label," Cohen explains, "has been compared to sharecropping. Artists were often paid not in cash but in goods and services, in credit to the company store."

Still, although Cohen doesn't pull his punches, he contends the system was a two-way street. "In 1970," he writes, "when Muddy, who never thought to buy insurance, wrecked his Cadillac and spent over two months in the hospital, Leonard paid the bill. When Muddy got loaded on whiskey in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and was arrested for driving drunk, Leonard paid the ticket."

In the end, then, the question is: "What did Chess really get from his artists, and what did those artists really get from Chess?" That's probably unanswerable, at least in any way that matters anymore. What's left is the story, a story that, like the music that produced it, remains aswirl in legend: the creation myth of rock-and-roll. Throughout "Machers and Rockers," Cohen makes salient points about race and culture, arguing that the 1950s "were the years when blacks and Jews found each other," since both were on the outside looking in. By the 1960s, it was different: "With the advance of the civil rights movement . . . and with the appearance of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers and a nation of separatists, outfits like Chess, which recorded black artists and sold mostly to the black community and yet were owned by white businessmen, were coming to be seen as a big part of the problem."

Still, if this suggests that Chess's success had a lot to do with circumstance, the same might well be said about the blues. Even now, as Cohen suggests, it remains "a secret language of poor blacks, discovered and co-opted and remade and packaged and sold and left for dead by whites. It is the story of Elvis Presley and Leonard Chess. . . . It is the story of Rock & Roll."