Phil Chess, co-founder of the legendary Chess Records, passed away last week at the age of 95.
Phil and his late brother Leonard turned their small indie label in Chicago into a launching pad for top electric blues artists, and in the process helped pave the way for the development of early rock & roll.
The record company gave us blues greats such as Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Buddy Guy—but also Ike Turner, Etta James, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry (arguably the king of rock & roll).
But what intrigues me most about the story of Chess is how the brothers treated (or mistreated) many down-and-out blues singers. It’s a classic narrative that runs through the history of the music biz but especially the early days of blues, R&B, and rock & roll—where record labels, producers, managers, promoters, and agents have long been accused of exploiting their artists, many of them black.
Over three decades ago I ran an unusual political campaign for the highest office in the land. Looking back on it now, it’s hard to believe I actually did it. I’ve often wondered if alien lizards took control of my brain. But I suppose I should take responsibility for it and admit that the devil made me do it.
The short version of the story is that I appeared on NBC’s Tomorrow Show in 1980 to suddenly announce—four years in advance—that I was a candidate for U.S. President for 1984.
As a result of this appearance on national television, a book contract followed the next day, plus endless radio and newspaper interviews, and I was off and running. I had no illusions about winning, but I guess I wanted to find out what it was like to run for national office—and to show that anyone could in fact run for U.S. President.
I was a rock musician at the time, so I ran a rock & roll campaign—improvising and jamming thoughout. In the end I technically didn’t win (i.e. I didn’t get enough votes—a ridiculous way to measure victory) and Ronald Reagan managed to eke out a 49-state victory. Yet Walter Mondale, who came in second despite spending $27 million, won only ONE more state than I did. And I spent only two hundred dollars (of my own money).
This may infuriate some friends (and even some business colleagues), but I have to say: I’m not a conspiracy buff.
Of course conspiracies exist, but I don't buy into the popular hits. I don’t believe that three bankers run the world, that terrorist acts are inside jobs, that US elections are fixed, that man-made global warming is a prefabricated hoax, or that aliens with reptilian bloodlines are taking over. (Ok, maybe this last one isn’t that far-fetched given the headlines lately.)
My rejection of the above, taken as a whole, likely puts me in the minority among U.S. adults these days. This argues for (among other things) a curriculum overhaul in American schools, addressing our illiteracy in civics, history, science, and more—but that’s another topic for another occasion.
How, you might ask, have I come to embrace such a heterodox worldview, given the ubiquity of urban legends? Well, I was schooled early. I was exposed to many conspiracy theories in my early music days, my favorite of which was the “Paul is dead” controversy surrounding the Beatles.