Appreciating the Chess masters

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.

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  1. When I read about the shenanigans of that period, I remind myself not to weigh another time, even, perhaps, another culture, by my current best self-impression.

    I also remind myself of that when artists bemoan the tiny rewards of the recording contract side-effects, such as dismal payouts from streaming services. If there's wrongdoing it should be addressed, certainly, but if I had a nickel for every artist who's made a bad deal and then whined about it, they'd want my nickels, too.

    1. Ha! I remember whining to Tim Rose ("Hey Joe," "Morning Dew") — a few decades ago — about a publishing contract I had with Doug Weston (owner of The Troubadour coffeehouse in Hollywood). Tim wryly asked, "Who forged your signature on the contract?"

    1. Yes, I should have mentioned that The Rollings Stones helped put Chess on the map by covering so many of their artists. And they got their name, of course, from a Muddy Waters' song. The Stones made many of us white kids aware of Muddy, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, and other Chess folks—as well as Robert Johnson, Jimmy Reed, etc.

  2. I'm not comfortable with the idea that the ends have justified the means. For every Eric Clapton and Muddy Waters there's a lot of personal tragedies in the background.

    For sure, capitalism is the freedom to take chances, make mistakes, produce poor-quality product and avariciously pursue insane amounts of money. But I don't think it is an excuse to exploit people - especially not people who maybe didn't always have the smarts or the confidence to push back.

    I think the only possible excuse is that nearly everyone was doing it and it wasn't only music that was affected. Sports stars and actors and many others also got royally ripped off and it had been going for a long time - look at how United Artists was formed as an example. You could also make the case that this simply reflected many societal attitudes as well.

    But to my mind, if capitalism wants to be (and should be) free to develop new opportunities in future, it needs to do so within an ethical and moral framework that respects human dignity.

    1. Yes, but in the early days of an industry too much control can choke the golden goose and everybody loses. Once things get going, more regulation is appropriate to provide a level playing field and protection for those who need it. But without Alan Freed (and the Chess brothers) they'd be no Chuck Berry, And without Chuck Berry they'd be no Stones, Beatles, etc.

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