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.
One version of the story is that these early businessmen (and they were usually men) took a financial risk and invested their heart, soul, and hard-earned cash into finding and developing talented young black singers and musicians.
A competing narrative is that these businessmen took advantage of artists’ financial illiteracy and tied them up in stingy contracts that paid the bare minimum (some artists called it an “allowance”).
But this strikes me as a false choice. In the case of Chess Records at least, both versions may be true. Leonard and Phil Chess—along with thousands of businessmen (especially in the 40s, 50s, and 60s)—recognized they could make a good living by giving unknown musicians a chance to showcase their talent. In the process these savvy entrepreneurs made sure they got a generous cut for themselves. And in those days what was considered the norm was certainly more label-friendly than artist-friendly.
In the words of music historian Elijah Wald, "That is the paradox of the Chess story. The brothers were not musical visionaries; they were small-time ‘indie’ record men making a quick buck from the poorest, least respected people in America."
But as blues guitarist Buddy Guy has said, "Phil and Leonard Chess were cuttin’ the type of music nobody else was paying attention to...I’ll always be grateful for that."
To make a larger point, I’ve always felt the music business has mirrored the best and worst of American enterprise. And rightly so. In its early years the music biz, like capitalism itself, needed the freedom to be bad, in every sense of the word. That included the freedom to take chances, make mistakes, and produce poor-quality (and often vulgar) product. And the freedom to avariciously pursue insane amounts of money. After all, a gold rush attracts the best and brightest—and the most rapacious. But in the end it's given us Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and so much more.
The music business in its early years was the Wild West, where kickbacks (including payola) and shady deals were ubiquitous—and not everyone shared in the bounty. Eventually these unethical practices had to be curbed, as usually happens when an industry matures. But the unregulated environment in the beginning helped attract the energy and capital to start a new kind of artistic and commercial melting pot. Innovators and hucksters, investors and shysters, artists and con men all played their part. What culminated in a rock & roll revolution could not have happened otherwise. (See my earlier post on that.)
If this sounds like a defense of capitalism, it is.