Spinning Blues Into Gold:
The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records
by Nadine Cohodas
St. Martin’s Press, 358 pp., $25.95
reviewed by Jim Linduff
In a lucid, thoroughly researched chronicle of the lives of Leonard and Phil Chess, Nadine Cohodas provides a better understanding of the independent record business and the music it helped create. Founded in Chicago, Chess Records, with subsidiaries Checker, Argo and Cadet was a major vehicle for blues, R&B and jazz artists and was at the core of the rise of rock and roll, the stuff that changed the music business forever.
The book is primarily the story of the Chess family's rise from poverty after immigrating to Chicago from the Jewish ghetto in Mostele, Poland in the 1920s, to become a formidable music empire, all in the space of twenty years. Ms. Cohodas, a writer and reporter now living in Washington, DC, is the author of two books dealing with racial issues in politics, Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change and The Band Played Dixie: Race and Liberal Conscience at Ole Miss. She currently is a reporter for the Congressional Quarterly and during our conversation revealed that she first became interested in the Chess story after reading the Etta James biography, Rage to Survive, during her stay in Oxford, Mississippi doing research for the Ole Miss book.
Cohodas is the granddaughter of European Jewish immigrants from near where the Czyz (Chess) family lived and she became fascinated by the relationships described by Etta James and began what became a three-year research project into the lives of the Chess family.
There is no question that this book concentrates on a defense of the Chesses against criticism previously lodged by many Chess musicians about their treatment both financially and socially—she falls short of full exoneration, but clearly attempts to add balance to the equation. The relationships between the almost entirely Black musicians and the white, Jewish owners constitute the central theme of the book and in that process Cohodas provides some detailed insight into the Chicago music scene of the 1950s and 1960s including pictures of artists, clubs and recording studios.
The story of the rise to prominence of the immigrant brothers Leonard and Phil began in 1928 when father Joe was able to send for his family from Poland. After working in his father’s scrap yard and junk store until 1941, Leonard opened a liquor store at 5060 State Street and then the Macomba Lounge at 3905 South Cottage Grove with brother Phil in 1946.
A hands-on owner, Leonard quickly became aware of the musicians and music preferred by his primarily Black clientele, many of whom had migrated from the South, and the Macomba became the place for music and a musician’s hangout—one of the best after-hours joints on the South Side.
An early hire, tenor player Tom Archia became the leader of the house band, which included Cozy Eggleston, also a sax player and Wendell Owens on piano. The music reflected the popular fare of the time—honking saxophones over driving rhythm sections, all done to induce a good time for the patrons at the noisy, raucous club. The Macomba was mostly a jazz house, rarely featuring the country blues that became the early staple of the Chess Record Company. During this period, Phil was developing a canny sense of what his clientele wanted to hear, perhaps the greatest asset that would in the future make him successful in the record business.
In 1947, Leonard became involved with the record business—a decision that would change his life. Having an interest in recording musicians who worked at the Mocambo, he was lead to Aristrocrat Records, founded by fellow South Side residents, Charles and Evelyn Aron. Leonard was added to the sales staff, pushing the records made by Tom Archia, Andrew Tibbs and others popular in the Black community. After the label signed Sunnyland Slim who introduced his partner McKinley Morganfield, known by his nickname Muddy Waters, the Chess sound was born. The Arons were divorced in 1948; Leonard bought out all the partners and changed the label name to Chess.
With the continued success of Chess records and the first subsidiary, Checker, added to increase radio airplay, two artists were signed who would make major influences on music to come, Chuck Berry and Bo Didley. With considerable crossover appeal to white audiences, their records became million sellers, and led white America into what was to become rock and roll.
In 1956, Leonard and Phil determined that the pop market could be exploited and after a brief trip the West Coast, announced the start of a new label, Martery Records with recordings by Savannah Churchill and the Daps. When bandleader Ralph Marterie objected to the name, a new name Argo was born. Offerings by the Ravins, Ahmad Jamal and James Moody followed and Argo became primarily a jazz label featuring straight-ahead music from artists working in Chicago.
In 1958, Ahmad Jamal recorded a live session at the Pershing Lounge that became a hit. The album included Poinciana and But Not For Me—both became standards. Ramsey Lewis followed Jamal to Argo and recorded an album called The In-Crowd, which stayed on the charts for three months. A "Best of" album followed, which included Wade in the Water and Hang On Sloopy, previously big sellers in the single format.
My Arco LP inventory includes several other solid offerings including Cookin’ The Blues by James Moody, a Benny Goodman LP, several by Jamal and Lewis and one recorded in 1961 by the mysterious bop pianist Dodo Marmarosa, who was lured out of seclusion by concert promoter Joe Segal and former Down Beat editor Jack Tracy. The album is titled Dodo’s Back, and contains unique takes on several standards.
Throughout the book, the relationships between the artists and the Chesses are discussed from both points of view and, where possible, data is included regarding the contracts and agreements made. At the core of most of the issues were deals formed by Leonard and Phil with Arc Music run by Gene and Harry Goodman, brothers of Benny. Arc became the publishing company for Chess in 1953, with half of the profits coming to the company split equally between the Chess and the Goodman brothers.
There were many allegations, lawsuits and other disputes regarding how artists fared dealing with Chess and Arc Music. While not initially considered important by Chess or the artists, the money from royalties became huge as major rock stars like the Rolling Stones covered original songs written by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and others. Also, allegations of understating sales figures, padding of expenses, etc. were made. Artists were often signed to "Employee for Hire" contracts with Arc and were paid a salary for writing a song with the rights going to the publishing company. Disc Jockeys and even the Chesses themselves were given songwriting credit as an inducement to push the records.
At best, the relationships between the Chesses and their artists were like that of fathers and their children. Most of the artists had little formal education, signed what was presented to them and were expected to be thankful for the chance to get their music recorded. They were treated for the most part with what might have been regarded in the 1950s as paternalism; perhaps what now might be considered a plantation mentality. Loans were made, bills were paid, artists were bailed out of jail and other personal crises were handled, but all were considered expenses and were subtracted from sales revenue, rarely with documentation.
The author concludes the Chess brothers were more fair than most, the start of Arc Music was done with no knowledge of the potential value of royalties, most of the principles are now dead and the documents of sales, contracts, expenses, etc. were lost in the sale of Chess Records in 1969 and thus, “the truth is in some amorphous middle ground.”
Unfortunately several people who could have added to this central theme either were not interviewed and/or refused to open their books to Ms. Cohodas. For example, Arc Music refused to supply any information and others with street experience (Joe Segal, Bob Koester) were not interviewed. The author is a reporter and writer, not a person with much musical background or knowledge of the Chicago music scene. We are left with an empty feeling about what might have been a more definitive view of this issue.
Given that criticism, blues and jazz fans will find much to savor in this book. Many details of the early Chicago independent recording scene are presented and the story of the Chess family is fascinating. Perhaps the most telling description of how the author feels about Chess is contained in the Epilogue. While touring the Chess studio, now given special landmark status, a visitor was heard to complain, “Too much about those old Jews.” Ms. Cohodas counters, “Lost in the interpretive buzz of the blues culture was the fact that “those old Jews” were Chess Records.” I’d suggest that in addition to “those old Jews,” Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Ahmad Jamal et. al., were Chess Records.
Jim Linduff teaches jazz and blues history at the University of Cincinnati and contributes to several music publications.