(Above: Leonard Chess, who I don’t think looks like Adrien Brody.)
One hundred years ago today – March 12, 1917 – Lejnor Czyz was born in Motal, which was in Poland then but is in Belarus today. I’m sure that no one in the village had any idea that he’d go on to become a major figure in Chicago Blues and rock and roll.
Young Lejnor became Leonard when he emigrated to the US at the age of 11, joining his father in the family business – liquor distribution – in Chicago in 1928. Chess went on to make a name for himself in the bar and nightclub business on the South Side of Chicago. Along with his brother Phil, he brought hot jazz acts to the stage of the Macomba Lounge at 39th and Cottage Grove. In an effort to diversify his investments, so to speak, he gained control of Aristocrat Records, a floundering jazz label. The club provided talent for the record label, and the appearances by performers at the club sold records.
By 1950 the sound of Aristocrat Records began to incorporate blues performers. Chicago was awash with African-American performers escaping the South and heading to Chicago looking for work. Conversely, Chess was on the lookout for performers he could add to the label. The direction of the record label changed, and Aristocrat became Chess Records. Performers such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Chuck Berry rose to prominence signing deals with Chess that likely weren’t available to them elsewhere. Chess also benefited from the pre-1960 process of payola, making sure that products of the record label saw airtime on small-time stations that delivered audiences likely to want the product. (By sticking to smaller stations, the cash flow also remained lower than trying to buy favor from a big city jock.)
Chess later moved into the broadcasting business. In March of 1963 Leonard and Phil Chess bought WHFC, extended its programming to 24-hour-a-day operation, and renamed it WVON to represent “The Voice of the Negro.” Disc jockey Herb Kent “The Cool Gent” was the most popular talent on the station, and he was approached by Leonard Chess about the purchase of the station, noting in his book that he got the Chess brothers and WHFC management to sit down and talk through the details of the sale. WVON garnered a huge share of not only the African-American audience it expected to get, but an awful lot of South Side Whites who wanted to hear offerings different from what WLS and WJJD served up. At night the station ranked as high as #2 in Chicago. Chess continued bringing great acts to his label until his early death at the age of 52 in 1969. His son Marshall and brother Phil kept the label going a little longer, but it eventually folded, with rights to music ending up with MCA.
The life of Leonard Chess was brought to the silver screen in the film Cadillac Records, portrayed by Adrien Brody. I wanted to like the film. The problem with studying media history and watching films like that, however, is when they make major mistakes – and they do – you can’t see past them. (Same thing happened in the theater when I saw Pirate Radio: as the boat sinks, we’re supposed to believe that the DJ received a copy of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” more than three years before its release, based on the film’s timeline.) Of course, if films like these get younger audiences engaged with music history, then maybe that’s not a bad thing after all.
There are so, so many pieces of music I could write about regarding what Chess Records, and its subsidiary labels, Checker and Cadet Concept, gave us. (On occasion I have, specifically Chuck Berry and The Rotary Connection.) But the first one I thought of for this piece is one of those “argument starter” records. By “argument,” I mean the question of “What is the first rock and roll record?” There’s a camp that sticks with Bill Haley and the Comets rendition of “Rock Around the Clock,” a camp that I think is incorrect. (Hell, that record is a remake of a release by Sunny Dae and the Knights.)
My vote goes to a recording that really should feature Ike Turner’s name on the label. The Delta Cats were really Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm. Jackie Brentston was the saxophone player in the band and does sing lead on the record, but the backing band is decidedly Turner’s band. The song was recorded in Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio, but Phillips passed the rights on to Chess, who released it. Bad move by Phillips. The song went on to hit #1 on the R&B charts in 1951. Listen closely, and you also hear what is likely the first instance of intentional distortion on a guitar. Legend has it that guitarist Willie Kizart’s amplifier was damaged on Highway 61 when it fell out of the band’s car. Budgets being what they were, Kizart continued to use the amp, and the sound of a ruptured cone was duplicated time and time again.
I’ve had my eye on 78 RPM copies of “Rocket 88” on Chess every time they come up for sale, but usually bail out when the price gets a little too rich for me. I might have to settle for an original 45 (not one of the many re-issues that you see turn up in used record shops). Someday I want to add one to the collection as a nod to Leonard Chess and the role that he played in the music that so many of us love.
See if you think it’s rock and roll. Hear “Rocket 88” by clicking here.