MACHERS AND ROCKERS
Chess Records and the
Business of Rock & Roll
By Rich Cohen
Atlas Books/Norton; 220pp; $22.95
The Good A highly entertaining and compact history of the origin of urban blues and rock 'n' roll.
The Bad Its jokey, sometimes startling prose may not appeal to all readers.
The Bottom Line Fascinating both as a business yarn and as a tale of the intersection of two immigrant cultures.
For a short book, Rich Cohen's Machers and Rockers: Chess Records and the Business of Rock & Roll has a surprising number of layers. It can be read as a well-researched and highly entertaining history of the origins of urban blues and rock 'n' roll. It's also a fascinating story about how red-dirt artistry and two-bit commerce came together to create and market a product that transformed the music world. Most intriguingly, it's an engrossing tale of the intersection of two first-generation immigrant groups: African Americans just up to Chicago from the Mississippi Delta and Jews recently arrived from Eastern Europe (thus the title's Machers -- Yiddish for "big shots").
The story of Chess Records, which recorded such legends as Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf, is in large measure the story of company founder Leonard Chess. Formerly Lezjor Czyz, whose family left the shtetls of Poland for the promised land of Chicago just after World War I, Chess began his working life behind the counter at his father's junk shop. In 1945 he moved on to a job at a South Side liquor store. It was there, amid the customers downing half-pint bottles of Old Crow in the back room, that Chess had an epiphany: The music these men liked could be a moneymaker.
His first stab at this was a South Side nightclub, the Macomba Lounge, which Chess, using money borrowed from his father, opened with his brother Phil in the late '40s. Its sizzling house band and visiting talent turned the Macomba into one of Chicago's swingingest spots. Soon it was drawing a new sort of customer -- small-time record producers. Their interest in the music acts gave Leonard another idea: By 1948 he had taken up a second job as a recruiter, producer, and one-man distribution unit for a mom-and-pop independent label, Aristocrat, the predecessor of Chess Records.
Cohen, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, writes like V.S. Naipaul crossed with Lenny Bruce: He uses jokey, sometimes startling language to describe the displaced-immigrant experience and his characters. Leonard Chess is "grasping, striving, eager, pushy, greedy, hungry, vulgar, loud, demanding, gruff" -- and effective, or so felt the musicians who signed with him. Muddy Waters is "odd-looking, regal" with "the eyes of a Mongol king" and a mustache that "looked like it had been drawn with eyebrow pencil."
Waters plays a key role in Cohen's story. He was first recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax, who in 1941 was casting about the Mississippi Delta in pursuit of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. (Lomax learned that Johnson was dead.) Months later, when Waters heard himself on Lomax' recording, he decided that tenant farming left something to be desired. Waters set out for Chicago, where he worked in a factory and got occasional club gigs.
Almost by accident, Chess recorded him in 1948 and had an immediate hit with Waters' I Can't Be Satisfied, which ultimately sold more than 60,000 copies. That was just the beginning. Waters went on to originate an electric-blues sound in the clubs. Cohen says this "was the first rock 'n' roll band, although it was not yet called that." But Waters' success wasn't the high point for Chess. That would come after a 19-year-old from suburban St. Louis showed up at Leonard's office door in 1955. The youth played a few songs of his own and was instructed to come back with a demo. He soon reappeared with Ida Mae, which got renamed Maybellene. Leonard, perceiving it to be new music, ordered 30,000 copies pressed, and soon Chess employees were working all-night shifts to fill the orders. Chuck Berry was on his way.
"Where did Chuck get this music?" asks Cohen. He had taken "the electric blues and run it through a blender, through the brand-new teen sensibility." And even though there was much Berry had borrowed, he had created something fresh.
Despite the appearance of such prodigies, Leonard Chess remains the central character of Machers and Rockers. This is not to say he was always a model citizen: In addition to being a tireless field operative, Chess was a pioneer of the bribes-for-radio-airtime scheme known as payola. A paternalistic benefactor, he was also not above liquoring up a performer before getting him to sign a sweetheart contract.
In the end, Chess's greatest triumph, rock 'n' roll, proved its undoing. Once major labels such as RCA Victor caught on to the music's vast commercial potential, they began buying up independents and pushing other small-time operators out of the business by offering their musicians better deals. Leonard Chess held out until 1968. Then, for a paltry $6.5 million plus some stock, he sold his company to General Recording Tape, a pioneer of the eight-track tape format. Later that year, Leonard died of a heart attack. By 1971 the record unit was bankrupt, but rock 'n' roll was here to stay.
By Hardy Green