Rock 'n' Roll's Unlikely Midwife

Leonard Chess was a street-smart Chicago Jew who clicked with Southern blacks, founded Chess Records, and helped create a cultural force

By Hardy Green


Chess Records and the Business of Rock & Roll

By Rich Cohen

Atlas Books/Norton -- 220pp -- $22.95

For a short book, Rich Cohen's Machers and Rockers: Chess Records and the Business of Rock & Roll has a surprising number of layers. First, 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 world.

And 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," which is Yiddish for big shots).

The story of Chess Records -- which recorded such blues legends as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and Chuck Berry -- is in large measure the story of company founder Leonard Chess. Formerly Lezjor Czyz, whose family deserted the shtetl-land 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 African-American customers downing half-pint bottles of Old Crow in the back room, that Chess had an epiphany: The music that these men made and listened to could be a moneymaker.


  His first stab at this was a nightclub, the Macomba Lounge, which Leonard, using money borrowed from his father, opened with his brother Phil in the late '40s. With its sizzling house band and visiting talent, it became one of Chicago's swingingest spots. Soon, the Macomba 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 another position, working as a recruiter, producer, and one-man distribution unit for a mom-and-pop independent label, Aristocrat, the predecessor of Chess Records.

Dozens of such independent record outfits were springing up, each with its own squad of Leonard-like hustlers and schemers. "Why did these men go into the record business?" Cohen asks. "Because what else could an ambitious Jew do that was half as exciting? The colleges had thrown up a wall of quotas, and the white shoe firms weren't hiring, but there was music in the ghetto, fresh and raw and exciting, and it was all off the radar: the major [record labels] would not touch it."


  What's more, Cohen adds, "because as immigrants with a personal knowledge of persecution, they were maybe the only Americans willing to form a partnership with poor blacks. These were the years when blacks and Jews found each other."

Cohen, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, writes like V.S. Naipaul crossed with Lenny Bruce: He's unafraid to use jokey, potentially offensive but honest language to describe the displaced-immigrant experience. Old Jews are "schnorrers" in itchy suits, accompanied by wives "in pirate-sized rings and furs." Leonard Chess is "grasping, striving, eager, pushy, greedy, hungry, vulgar, loud, demanding, [and] gruff" -- and that's why the blues musicians want to record with him.

Muddy Waters and other African Americans from the Delta are described as feeling the gravitational pull of Chicago -- point of origin of the Illinois Central Railroad, with its spurs that fan out across the South, and the Sears Roebuck catalog, from which Waters bought his first guitar. By Hardy Green


  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. (He learned that Johnson was dead.) Months later, when Waters (a.k.a. McKinley Morganfield) heard himself on Lomax' recording, he decided that tenant farming on Stovall Plantation left something to be desired. Waters lit out for Chicago, where he worked in a factory and picked up occasional gigs in the clubs.

Almost by accident, Chess recorded him in 1948 -- and had an immediate hit with Waters' tune I Can't Be Satisfied, which ultimately sold over 60,000 copies. But that was just the beginning. As Waters went on to pioneer a new electric-blues sound in the clubs. Cohen says this "was the first Rock & Roll band, though it was not yet called that. It was the loudest music anyone ever heard. It had the drive of an engine, the hum of a diesel on an inky black night -- music that makes you feel like staying out late, driving too fast, drinking more than is advisable, starting a fight."

But Waters' success wasn't the high point for Chess. That would come after a black 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 told to come back with a demo. And he did, with Ida Mae, later turned into 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 he had borrowed and stolen, he had created something new: "Rock & Roll was invented by Chuck Berry in 1955," the author writes.

Despite the appearance of such musical prodigies, Leonard Chess remains the central character of Machers and Rockers. This is not to say he's always a model citizen: Cohen shows him to be a tireless field operative and pioneer of the bribes-for-radio-airtime known as payola, a paternalistic benefactor who's not above liquoring up a performer before getting him to sign a sweetheart contract. Terms might include work-for-hire, surrender of music-publishing rights to Chess, and very low royalty rates on record sales.

Many were paid in goods and services rather than money: Etta James, whom Cohen calls "a terrific junky," got no royalties, but Leonard bought her a house. It was as if some artists had traded one plantation for another. Still, many preferred Chess to other labels: "If they were going to get screwed, they would rather get screwed by Leonard, because at least Leonard was honest about it," observed Chess engineer Ron Malo.


  In the end, Chess's greatest triumph, rock 'n' roll, proved its undoing. Once major labels like RCA Victor caught on to the new 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. Then, too, the civil-rights movement and black nationalism seemed to suggest that African Americans should run their own record companies.

Leonard Chess saw the handwriting on the wall and sold out in 1968. For a paltry $6.5 million plus some stock, Chess became the property of General Recording Tape, a pioneer of the now all-but-forgotten eight-track tape-cartridge format. Later that year, Leonard died of a heart attack, and by 1971, the record unit was bankrupt. Rock 'n' roll may be here to stay, but for Chess, the game was over.

Green is an associate editor for BusinessWeek in New York

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