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NewCityNet Blues Explosion

A musical stroll to 2120 South Michigan Avenue

By James Porter

DECEMBER 7, 1998: 

"The Story of Chess Records" by John Collis
Bloomsbury, 192 pages, $27.95

2120 South Michigan Avenue. To hardened blues fans, this was the address of Chicago's late, lamented Chess Records. To some neophytes, it's the title of an old Rolling Stones' song and nothing more.

Even if this South Loop residence has no significance at all to you, John Collis' "The Story of Chess Records" is still a good read; and, for blues aficionados, the book is meatier and more insightful than might be expected.

When Polish immigrant Leonard Chess first bought out Aristocrat Records (soon to become Chess) from its previous owner in 1947, he "didn't know nothing about no blues," according to future Chess superstar Muddy Waters. However, as a businessman working in tandem with his brother Phil in Chicago's black communities, Leonard had a feel for the tastes of the African-American community. After about a year of random releases in the jump-blues vein, the Chess brothers stumbled onto Waters, Sunnyland Slim and the Chicago blues sound as we now know it. "The Story of Chess Records" profiles all the major stallions in the label's stable: Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry. The unstoppable Buddy Guy, who in recent years has been too prominent to ignore, gets quite a bit of space. To his credit, despite the sentimental memories, Guy does not shy away from admitting that while Chess had one of the greatest blues lineups in the history of history, he's probably being more generous with his praise than Leonard Chess was with the paychecks.

At a glance, the book looks like a thin coffee-table tome, too modest to justify its $27.95 list price, rehashing tales of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf for the umpteenth time. And like most historians, Collis overlooks the fact that Chess didn't just contribute to the blues, but to black music in general. Soul, jazz and gospel kept Chess going long after the blues passed its commercial prime. In a rare burst of honesty, Collis admits this bias in his introduction, noting Chess' other successes in passing. (Former Chess artist Terry Callier, the current toast of the acid-jazz set, isn't mentioned at all.) In a way, this is understandable - as former Chess player Andre Williams once said, "Don't be no Leonard Chess, don't be no Chicago blues!"

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