Documentary commemorating the 60th anniversary of the blues, rock 'n' roll, R&B and soul record label which shaped the musical landscape of the second half of the 20th century.
Browse content similar to Roll over Beethoven - The Chess Records Saga. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
This programme contains very strong language.
Chess was one of the most innovative record labels of all time.
Throughout the 1950s and '60s,
Chess was at the cutting edge of black music,
releasing blues, rock and roll and soul masterpieces.
When you look at Chess Records, boy is that some textbook.
We are the bomb. We're Chess Records.
# Roll over Beethoven I gotta hear it again today... #
Chess artists like Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley
changed the landscape of popular music on both sides of the Atlantic.
# Roll over... #
Amazing harmonica solos. Amazing guitar tones.
What came out was just something that was...
Amazing lyrics. Amazing vocals.
What a massive impact it had on the artists of the '60s
who went on to kind of change the world.
# They're rockin' in two by two. #
The label was the result of an unlikely marriage
between black musicians and two white Jewish entrepreneurs,
Phil and Leonard Chess,
at a time when America was deeply divided by race.
You had a combination of a brash dude like Leonard Chess
and you had a guy like Muddy Waters, who were bold,
and together they had the combination to say "Let's go get it".
# Roll over Beethoven Dig these rhythm and blues. #
And this big musical adventure took place in Chicago,
the Windy City.
It whistles, it talks,
it moans, it groans.
And all the while it's doing those things,
it's blowing that air.
In the first half of the 20th century,
migrants both black and white blew into Chicago,
attracted to its more liberal atmosphere and the chance to change their lives.
Amongst these hundreds of thousands of immigrants
included Muddy Waters from Mississippi and Leonard Chess from Poland.
It was a typical immigrant story.
My family came from a small town
in Poland. Like all immigrants,
they came to America to make money, and it WAS a better life.
Black Americans also moved to Chicago,
fleeing the racism of the Southern states.
The whole feel of that era was one of...
a rush to freedom. At least, a rush to less oppression.
The job opportunities were there. If you worked at
the post office in Chicago at that time, you was big doo-doo.
# Well, I ain't from Chicago I'm from a little town... #
To the black migrants moving up from the South,
Chicago was an exciting new world.
# ..I think I will stay around. #
It was a booming city. Lot of action. You went into a club,
everybody was from either Tennessee, Mississippi,
Georgia, Texas or New Orleans.
And the common ground was that they was from the South and they loved the blues.
Let's go to Chicago, because you can start to make real money there.
Cos what you didn't realise was that
you were going to work in some very, very hard circumstances.
But look at those clubs!
I mean, the opportunity to sort of down tools and play.
In 1945, right at the end of World War Two,
Leonard Chess, a 28-year-old Jewish entrepreneur,
was looking for business opportunities
and spotted one within this black Chicago world.
He opened this liquor store in a rough black ghetto neighbourhood,
and that's where he got his first inkling of black people loving to buy alcohol,
to party, and that's where he saw the next step.
Leonard's next business move was to open a bar with live music -
the Macomba Lounge, in 1947.
A black nightclub?
A hangout for jazz musicians,
for prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers...
# I'm goin' fishin', baby... #
Marshall Chess remembers his father Leonard
taking him to the Macomba Lounge when he was just five years old.
There were gunshots,
and my father threw me across the bar to my uncle
who laid on top of me on the floor on these wooden slats, you know,
with stale alcohol and old cigarette smell.
# Out juicin' all night You come home stewed... #
Leonard was a gambling man.
He regularly moved within Chicago's Jewish poker circles,
and this is where he met businesswoman Evelyn Aron.
# Hey, hey, pretty momma... #
In 1947, Evelyn invited Leonard to join her new record label,
Aristocrat. It was here this white Polish salesman
met a 31-year-old black musician from Mississippi - Muddy Waters.
# Hey, hey, pretty momma... #
Their friendship would shape the rest of their lives
and play a key part in the growth of Chess Records.
They just met each other at the right time.
The beginning of both of their moves towards a better life,
and both driven, and both leaders. I mean, I think Muddy once told me
that my father was one of the first white men
that he ever really had a true friendship with.
That was something my father felt very comfortable about, black people.
I used to tease him and say "You're more comfortable around blacks than whites."
He says, you know, "In some ways you're right."
In Chicago in the late 1940s,
the acoustic country blues of the black Southern migrant was starting to change.
To compete with the sounds of the big city,
the musicians were embracing amplifiers and electric guitars,
transforming the blues into a tougher, louder urban blast.
It just became a practical reality,
that once you get into a bar or a club,
it became hard to hear the band, you know? So they just had to plug in.
You got a lot of people in a small space,
and people were celebrating and loud, and they want to get a party.
Leonard's new friend Muddy Waters
was at the forefront of this new emerging urban blues style.
In 1948, when he was making his very first recordings for Aristocrat Records,
Muddy made a crucial breakthrough in the birth of electric blues in Chicago.
There had been recordings with electric guitar before,
but it tended to be an adjunct.
I Can't Be Satisfied was like, you know, wow!
The guitar was up there with the voice.
-A lot of what the record is about is that...
He's playing it just like he originally played it on an acoustic,
but now he's got that exciting element
of the electric guitar,
so this is country blues has come to town.
There were guitarists who could play really well acoustic,
but they couldn't make that transition -
it just didn't work on electric for them.
But Muddy managed to come up with this style
that really crystallised this whole thing
which made it his character, and what he was trying to project.
If it's done in 1948, it's even more astonishing.
That sort of was like...
It perked up the ears of a lot of kids
around the country, saying "What is that?"
# Well, I'm going away to leave Won't be back no more... #
In 1949, when Evelyn Aron left Aristocrat,
Leonard and his brother Phil took a gamble and bought the label outright.
One year later, the brothers gambled again,
relaunching Aristocrat as Chess Records.
# Oh yeah
# Oh yeah. #
Leonard and Phil - opposites.
A very typical two-brother situation.
My uncle Phil, laid-back, smoking those big cigars.
My father, the older brother - driven, possessed.
Two different personalities, and they knew it.
# Well, I wish... #
Leonard had the initiative.
Leonard was the one who had the sharper vision.
Phil helped him execute it.
And again, I think that the enterprise
probably wouldn't have been the same if it had just been Leonard by himself
with trusted hired help.
The fact that it was Leonard and Phil made it special.
Leonard and Phil released the first blues hit on their new Chess label
in 1950 - Rollin' Stone by Muddy Waters.
# I went to... #
It was hitting everywhere.
It was all over Chicago, Rollin' Stone.
Muddy Waters says that he really made Chess and Chess really made him.
The very early success of Muddy Waters
really inspired both my uncle and Muddy Waters.
# I don't want
# To be no slave... #
Although the recording of Rollin' Stone was just electric guitar and bass,
Muddy's live club band was larger,
and he was keen to bring them into the recording studio.
At first, the Chess brothers were reluctant to break the successful formula.
They eventually relented,
and allowed Muddy to record his club band
on masterpieces like I Just Want To Make Love To You
That began the archetype of what the rock and roll band would become.
You know, the bass, the guitar, a keyboard, drums.
That sort of configuration was pretty much created by the Muddy Waters Band.
# Cryin' shame... #
When it came down to Muddy Waters putting together a band,
that total sound is really what got the crowd moving and rocking.
# ..To make my bed... #
He sounds kind of like a lion,
you can imagine him with a big mane and he'd somehow sound like that.
# I just want to make love to you... #
You had a combination of Muddy Waters, who were bold,
and you had a brash dude like Leonard Chess,
and together they had the combination to say "Let's go get it."
The promotion that Leonard Chess gave Muddy Waters
allowed him to play at bigger black venues in Chicago.
One of the city's most famous disc jockeys, Herb Kent,
witnessed Muddy's growing popularity.
In all the areas they were playing
I Just Want To Make Love To You and people came out
and they were dancing and doing the hoochie coochie -
I will never forget that.
I began to really understand that at that point,
Chicago was a blues town.
Muddy's band included harmonica player and blues bad boy Little Walter.
In 1952, at the end of a recording session for Chess,
Muddy allowed Little Walter to cut an instrumental called Duke.
From then on, it became essential for Chicago blues bands
to include an amplified harmonica in their line-up.
He was sort of the Eric Clapton or, you know, Jeff Beck -
the job they would serve in the Yardbirds, you know,
Little Walter was the flash.
You know, he was the... He was the...
He did the killer solos, you know?
Duke was a masterpiece.
It was just a great creative piece of work
that he came up with.
But Leonard Chess was unsure of when to release Little Walter's Duke.
A couple of months after the recording,
Leonard played the song in the office.
As he turned up the volume,
Leonard watched the women outside on the street start to dance.
It was an immediate sign,
and my father and everyone rushed this out, rushed this out, you know?
He always used to like to watch the response of his audience.
After the success of Duke, Little Walter went solo,
recording a number of blues hits for Chess
that sometimes even outsold Muddy's own releases for the label.
One of them was called Boom Boom, Out Go The Lights.
# No kidding, I'm ready to fight
# I've been lookin' for my baby all night
# If I get her in my sight
# Boom boom, out go the lights... #
He was sort of the archetype rock-and-roller.
He was the one getting in fights, and obviously
a song from the heart. You know, this is what was going on in his life.
You had no problem believing that. You know?
When I first heard that record, I was like...
I said, man, I can't believe it.
He's really talking about if his woman goes out for the night,
you know, he find her, you know, whatever, he might forgive her,
but boom boom, I'm going to knock her out.
I was like, whoa.
early electric blues reflected the mood of the black ghetto, of the neighbourhood.
The problems. There weren't psychiatrists or psychologists for black people.
It showed you exactly the time and the period
of what was acceptable, which is crazy.
But also it showed you how crazy Little Walter was.
# Boom boom! Out go the lights. #
ELECTRIC GUITAR RIFF
# Better watch out, man How you drive that Cadillac there. #
As the music developed in Chicago,
Leonard worked night and day conducting huge sweeping tours of the Seven States,
where he charmed local DJs, distributors and retailers.
This was essential to the label's commercial growth,
and the South became Chess's biggest market outside of Chicago.
The United States still had weekly sanctions, segregation,
so when Leonard went down South, he was a white man,
he could indeed go anyplace he wanted.
He didn't have to determine, can I stay in this hotel? Can I get gas at this station?
Do I have to get my food from the back of this restaurant, if they will even serve me?
Leonard, like other Jewish immigrants in the States,
had experienced racial prejudice
and empathised with the plight of black Americans.
I think they had a real soft spot
for black people who were feeling the same thing as they felt.
They knew how it felt.
But they knew they had the edge by being white.
It was Leonard, the white businessman,
who searched for new black musical talent during these trips.
Once, when visiting Chess distributor and friend Stan Lewis in Louisiana,
Leonard came face to face with the racism of the South.
I called in and I said, "Leonard, I've got a good blues singer
"by the name of Stick Horse Hammond."
He was owned by the owner of the plantation.
So we drove up to this big mansion,
and this man came out with his shotgun and I said, "Sir,
"do you have a guy by the name of Stick Horse Hammond?"
And I says, "I have a friend here, Leonard Chess,
"who wants to make a big star out of him."
And he stuck a shotgun in my stomach.
And he says, "What do you want with my nigger? What do you want with my nigger?
"You leave my nigger alone." And he was shoving a shotgun in my stomach.
And Leonard said, "Come on, Stan, let's get out of here."
# Ain't gonna worry my life any more
# Mmm mmm mmm-mmm-mmm... #
Despite the racism of the South,
there were also good times during these mid-'50s road trips.
For Leonard's son Marshall, who sometimes accompanied him,
they were an opportunity to bond with his workaholic father.
When I was 13, my father picked me up in Miami, Florida.
We had gone for a three-week trip in some horribly cheap motel,
and he took me with him back all the way up to Chicago through the South.
We get outside Mobile, he says, "You know, I'm falling asleep."
And he says, "You drive."
I was going in my pants, you know? I was scared.
Started driving between Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans.
That was our next stop.
And he actually started snoring.
And I'll never forget, I woke him up because about an hour later
I ran into a field of locusts. I had to put the windscreen wipers on
to get rid of the bugs, and it scared me.
A little bit of insight into my father's personality
and his relation to me
was he said, "Come on, I want to teach you how to shake hands."
And he gave me this really firm grip,
and he said, "Look me right in the eye,"
and he said, "That's how you shake hands like a man", you know?
And to this day, I look in people's eyes and shake hands as hard as I can.
# I'm a young red rooster... #
Back in Chicago, Leonard kept busy producing Chess artists in the studio.
Here, he believed that goading them often brought out their best performance.
One exchange between himself and Sonny Boy Williamson
revealed Leonard's provocative technique
and his enjoyment of black American slang.
-What's the name of this?
Little Village, motherfucker, Little Village.
Motherfucking thing ain't about a village, you son of a bitch!
Nothing in this song has got anything to do with a village.
-Well, a small town!
-That's what a village is!
Well, all right. You don't need no title.
You name it after I get through with it, son of a bitch.
You name what you want. You name it your mamma if you wanna.
Take one, roll it.
# Well, tattered, tattered and torn... #
By the mid 1950s, the label's roster already included
blues innovators like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf,
Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter.
These were the glory days of Chess electric blues.
The whole culture exploded, a lot like hip-hop.
Fashion was affected - the way people dressed,
the cars they drove was affected.
# You better believe it... #
It's like when they had the punk movement over here.
They hit on something, and they just all went at it.
There was a time, uh, I would come down to the studio,
and I would stand there and look out the big window.
And the Cadillacs would drive up - one Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf -
all of them would drive up and park their cars in front of the studio.
There'd be five or six different colours
all big Cadillacs.
There was this short period of years
where the electric blues ruled, man. We had hit after hit.
Essential to Chess's success in the mid 1950s
was arranger and songwriting genius Willie Dixon,
who composed many of the labels most memorable blues hits.
One of these was 1954's Hoochie Coochie Man
written for Muddy Waters.
It's just the sheer attitude.
What would you give just to have been a fly on the wall in that studio?
It'd just be coming at you, the force of it.
It was a track that epitomised the Chess electric blues era.
# A gypsy woman told my mother
# Before I was born
# You got a boy child comin'
# Gon' be a son of a gun
# He gonna make pretty womens
# Jump and shout
# Then the world want to know
# What this all about
# But you know I'm him... #
This is adult music.
Don't mix this up with kids - we're doing this for grown folks who work,
who're looking to have a good time out.
What could be more sexual...
than the rooster kicking up to the woman,
"I'm your hoochie coochie man."
It has so much power to it, and yet they're taking their time.
It's not a fast-moving tune,
it's just tough and grinding away and...
Can't be denied.
# Well, you know we are the hoochie coochie boys
# The whole United States know me Yeah. #
APPLAUSE AND CHEERS
I owe such a debt to...
As a kid, as a teenager, listening to that music
and just really being, you know, shaken to the core by it.
The roster of Chess artists and the blues riffs they created
would later have a huge influence on 1960s and '70s rock acts
like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
Those endless repeated things,
they become part of the language of...
Blues, blues rock, jazz rock, rock.
In the mid-'50s, these Chess blues artists were existing under the white radar
and being enjoyed almost exclusively by a core black American audience.
It is a misconception, I think, particularly after the fact,
that songs we now think of as great blues hits,
the sales were not that great.
# Ooh-oooh... #
Chess blues acts like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf
were making their money not through record sales,
but live shows, which their recordings helped promote.
It wasn't "Let's make some artistic Library of Congress masterpieces" -
"Let's make a hit!", maybe, so we can make some money this weekend.
That's the real story.
# Ba ba do
# Ba do
# Ba do, ba do
# Ba ba do... #
Although Leonard and Phil weren't making large profits in 1954,
they were doing OK.
But in the following year, things changed rapidly
when white American teenagers with cash to spend
caught on to black music.
In 1955, white American teenagers
flocked to the movie Blackboard Jungle.
Crucially, the film featured Bill Haley's Rock Around The Clock,
which gave many of these white youngsters
their very first taste of rock and roll.
In the same year two black musicians, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry,
arrived at Chess with a brand new sound and a brand new energy.
Leonard Chess was now armed with just the right artists
to target this huge, lucrative white teenage market.
ROCK AND ROLL MUSIC
# Aaaah ah-ah
# Beep beep... #
This odd new sort of...
species sprang up that was in between adolescence and adults.
You know, that had never existed before on the planet.
And products had to be created for this new market,
for this new species.
Bo Diddley's Road Runner
was exactly the type of fun, accessible product
that would appeal to this new audience.
Bo's family had moved from Mississippi to Chicago
when he was six.
By the early 1950s,
Bo was in his 20s and a part-time musician in the city.
He did construction work,
spare time - he would play guitar and sing.
So, he wasn't one of those guys out to try to be a star.
Bo was a guy with a big sense of humour.
He built his own guitars,
those guitars that look like a box, a big box?
I went over to his house one day and he had, man, a basement
full of amplifier parts, all scattered all over the place,
where he would try to make his own amps.
These musical experiments, which included adding a maracas player to the band,
as well as bringing in female guitarists,
helped create Bo Diddley's unique sound and image.
In early 1955,
Bo and his harmonica player, Billy Boy Arnold,
had touted their demo around Chicago labels.
Their first stop was a rival record label, Vee-Jay,
right across the street from Chess.
Secretary was on her way to lunch.
And she said, "What you guys want?"
I said, "We got a dub," she said, "Let me hear it."
She put the dub on and played one second and said,
"I don't like that."
They thought it was junk.
They thought it was weird and different sounding.
He walked across the street and played it for my uncle.
Phil Chess came out of the back room,
he knew me.
And said, "Hey, man. Got something for me?" I said, "Yeah."
So, he put it on and he heard I'm A Man.
My uncle immediately knew, called my father in,
and my father said, "Yeah!"
It was an instant hit.
HE PLAYS THE HARMONICA
# When I was a little boy
# 'Bout the age of five
# I had somethin' in my pocket
# Keep a lot of folks alive
# Now I'm a man
# Made 21
# You better believe me, baby
# We can have a lot of fun
# I'm a man
# I spell M
# N... #
Although I'm A Man was a hit, the A-side, a song called Bo Diddley,
recorded in the same session, was a bigger breakthrough.
And with its tremolo guitar, hambone beat and maracas,
it encapsulated Bo Diddley's new sound.
# Bo Diddley just buy his baby a diamond ring
# If that diamond ring don't shine
# He's gonna take it to a private eye
# If that private eye can't see
# He'd better not take that ring a-from me... #
He just seemed to try revolutionary, sort of, sounds
and that rhythm, the classic Bo Diddley rhythm,
is entirely his.
Bo Diddley played the guitar like the drummer played the drums.
# To make his pretty baby a Sunday coat... #
He's, like, from some other place, you know?
And you're kind of scared of it and yet you want to embrace it.
How many people in music can tell you they created an entire sound?
In May 1955, just two months after Bo Diddley made his debut at Chess,
a 29-year-old guitarist from St Louis called Chuck Berry
travelled to Chicago looking for a record deal.
Here he met his hero, Muddy Waters,
who suggested he approach Leonard Chess with his songs,
one of which was called Ida Red.
And I'll show you the genius of Leonard.
Leonard didn't think that Ida Red was catchy enough,
so he had Chuck change it to Maybellene.
Which was... That word, that name, was better.
Maybellene was released in July 1955.
13-year-old Marshall Chess was travelling in a car with his father
when they heard a white radio DJ play the song
on a white radio station.
# Maybellene, why can't you be true?
# Oh, Maybellene
# Why can't you be true?
# You've started back doing the things... #
I remember the disc jockey was Howard Miller,
the afternoon four o'clock show.
Boom! Maybellene, Chuck Berry goes on.
My father got so excited, he turned to me, and he said,
"Marshall," he said, "We finally made it."
# Maybellene, why can't you be true?
# Oh, Maybellene
# Why can't you be true?
# You've just started back doing the things you used to do
# The Cadillac pulled up ahead of the Ford
# The Ford got hot and wouldn't do no more
# It soon got cloudy and it started to rain
# I tooted my horn for a passin' lane
# The rain water blowin' all under my hood
# I knew that was doin' my motor good
# Maybellene, why can't you be true? #
Chuck Berry crossed over into the whites,
and the white disc jockeys was playing the record.
And that opened up a whole new field.
Well, welcome once again to the WCFL All-Night Record Show,
seven minutes after 4am.
# Why can't you be true?
# Oh, Maybellene
# Why can't you be true? #
The middle class had grown to where the white kids had cars for the first time.
Black kids did not have cars riding around.
Chuck's genius was he understood that emerging white culture
and wrote to them.
And they were lyrics that we could really relate to.
And...when he was singing about back in the USA
and the hamburgers sizzling et cetera,
we'd only just about got hamburgers over here with Wimpys.
And... And...you just realised that there was another whole attitude
to a hamburger and you could smell this sizzling.
-It was just...
He just painted these pictures. It was so lyrical.
And you just knew, as a teenager,
that there was something really going on over there.
New youth television shows like American Bandstand
were also embracing the rock-and-roll phenomenon.
The importance of American Bandstand to Chess Records,
or any record company at that time,
was, um, creating a hit record for you.
It reached millions of homes
that the small R&B stations did not reach.
Max Cooperstein was a good friend of Dick Clark,
the host of American Bandstand.
Max encouraged Dick to put Chuck berry on his show.
-There he is, Mr Chuck Berry!
# Way down in Louisiana
# Close to New Orleans
# Way back up in the woods
# Amongst the evergreens
# There stood a log cabin
# Made of earth and wood
# Where lived a country boy
# Named Johnny B Goode
# Who never ever learned
# To read or write so well
# But he could play the guitar
# Just like ringin' a bell, go, go! #
American Bandstand was one of the most watched music shows
on US television.
Chess Records was now operating on a much bigger stage.
# Go, Johnny, go, go!
# Johnny B Goode
# He used to carry his guitar... #
The label was now crossing over into the white mainstream media,
even teenage movies.
The film Rock, Rock, Rock featured a number of Chess acts
including Chuck Berry and his latest hit, Roll Over Beethoven.
This song perfectly captured the moment
when rock and roll changed the world for good.
He sang, you know, once it was classical music,
you know, or once it was jazz,
so once it was this, now it's this new thing called rock and roll.
And he was making that actually come true.
# Roll over Beethoven I gotta hear it again today... #
Like the Chess blues artists before him,
Chuck Berry would have a huge influence on the giants of 1960s rock music.
Especially the Rolling Stones.
The Rolling Stones are one of the inventors of rock music,
the entire genre.
And so, when you pass on that influence through them,
that goes through the entire history of rock music.
But in the middle of Chuck Berry's huge crossover success in the late 1950s,
Chess Records almost shut down.
In 1957, Leonard Chess had a heart attack.
He was frustrated that his career would be, um...
sidelined at this crucial moment of his life.
And of course, he didn't stop, really, smoking, um...
And he went right back to work.
The whole family was horribly upset.
Just when Leonard, the label's driving force,
should have been avoiding stress,
there was another crisis for him to deal with.
Chuck Berry, Chess's biggest selling artist,
was accused of taking a 14-year-old waitress across state lines.
It was devastating for us when Chuck Berry got arrested
with a federal crime called the Mann Act.
# You gotta help me
# I can't do it all by myself... #
We did everything we could to keep him from going to prison, but we failed, he went to prison.
The controversies for Chess Records didn't stop there.
At the end of the 1950s, the label was under investigation
when the Payola Scandal swept the record business.
Payola meant giving back-handers to radio DJs,
to make certain records a hit.
Some of these jocks got crazy,
they been buyin' big cars, big fur coats
and the Internal Revenue won't know where the money was coming from.
The majority of our payola were disc jockeys who got a salary cheque every month.
And we did deduct the taxes.
We didn't break the law, because they were going after everyone on breaking tax laws,
because payola wasn't illegal.
They let Chess off the hook.
At the end of the 1950s, despite this series of setbacks for the label,
Leonard was determined to be at the forefront of the new style of music emerging from the black underground.
# Oooh, sometimes I get a good feeling, yeah
# Yeah... #
We really wanted to expand Chess.
We were under the impression the electric blues was dying out, sales were dropping.
They started buying soul music.
Some of the producers got smart
and they start writing optimistic songs.
You know, like "I'm Gonna,"
and "One Day Soon," and "It's Gonna Happen."
And they started writing things that you look forward to.
# I don't want you To be no slave
# I don't want you...#
After the label's difficulties in the late 1950s,
soul's fresh new optimism spread to Chess Records itself.
# I just wanna make Love to you...#
The label's next start would break the Chess mould.
Rather than another male musician from the South,
their new star was a young 21-year-old woman with attitude from California.
Etta James was
one of the prettiest black girls that I had ever seen.
Plus, she could sing.
# Oh yeah
# And oh yeah
# And oh And oh
# And ooooh yeah, now. #
I think it was "Something's Got a Hold On Me," the first thing that I heard.
It was...just a vocal that just summed it all up,
all this sort of blues and gospel.
It was top notch.
Number one, just put it like that.
Whenever she came in, everybody started moving.
# Something got a hold on me Yeah, yeah
# Oh, something got a hold on me Right now, yeah, child
# Let me tell you now I got a feeling, I feel so strange
# Everything about me Seems to have changed
# Step by step I got a brand new walk...#
In the recording studio, Leonard provoked Etta James every bit as much as his male blues musicians.
And, despite rumours, their relationship was purely platonic.
Even so, it was still highly charged.
Leonard Chess never went with Etta James,
there was never a relationship there other than musically,
and him trying to keep her straight.
But he had a relationship with Etta where he could curse in the studio,
and it would burn up Etta to the point where she would just really, really start singing.
He had her crying and he ripped her contract up,
anything to get the emotion out of her when she sang.
# At last
# My love has come along...#
Out of this volatile relationship came some beautiful music.
Leonard knew Etta was special,
and was more than willing to splash out on large orchestras when recording lush ballads,
like the 1941 wartime classic, "At Last."
That song came from Etta's, deep down,
inner place that nobody else could reach.
Nobody else can reach.
Because it didn't come from her voice, it came from her soul.
# The skies above are blue
# My heart was wrapped up in clover
# The night I looked at you...#
Her maturity and the scope of her talent was such that
it didn't make any difference how old she was.
She felt it and she made you feel it.
# A dream that I can call my own
# I found a thrill To rest my cheek...#
One thing that made Etta so prized at Chess
was her musical diversity.
At Last, both the album and the single, were big hits for Chess,
and helped change the label's public profile.
We were getting recognised by radio stations
that we hadn't been getting airplay on with any of our artists.
So it did open up a lot more avenues for us.
# For you are mine
# At last. #
In 1963, with Etta at the height of her powers,
Leonard was still restless.
With his eye on the future he took another business gamble,
spending 1 million buying a local Chicago radio station,
which he re-named WVON, the Voice Of the Negro.
# W-V-O-N, giant sound of soul! #
We were the first big station that went 24 hours of personalities,
and playing R'n'B and blues.
Huge. Big. Unbelievable.
You just had to lock in to WVON, it was part of your every day occurrence
in terms of just dealing with life, period.
The thing that made WVON special is that it took community issues and made them omnipresent.
And then giving organisations time that they would never, ever have.
By the summer of 1963, rather than serving a variety of Chicago's minority communities,
Radio WVON now catered exclusively to the city's huge black population.
-# We need love
-# That's what we need
-That's what we need
-# We need more love
-# That's what we need
-That's what we need
# We need love...#
Leonard and Phil understood that they found their first success in the black community,
and while it may be a cliche to say, "We want to give back something,"
He did, but at the same time,
thought that there was nothing wrong with having a successful business enterprise.
WVON, the Voice Of the Negro.
I'm Herb Kent, get ready to jam like a big dog.
As the Chess empire in Chicago was growing,
the fight for black American civil rights was heating up.
Leonard was shocked at the images of racial violence coming out of the southern states.
When he saw the dogs and the hosing of Selma
and the civil rights marches, he was really upset.
He knew about the segregation, we were called "nigger lovers" many times
by many white people across America.
in 1963, Marshall, now 21 years old, experienced this racism first hand
whilst recording the live album "Bo-Diddly's Beach Party" in South Carolina.
I want everybody to give us some noise.
I want you to holler, "I'm all right."
When Bo-Diddly's black maracas player, Jerome Green, jumped into the white audience
all hell broke loose.
All of a sudden the lights start flashing, in walk the police with German Shepherd police dogs,
sound shuts off, concert's up, over, what's going on? Everyone is confused.
Cops took me outside, they threw me against the wall,
said, "Jew man, you think these niggers can dance here with white people?
"You got another think coming. If you don't stop this,
"we're going to lock you up and your people wont know where to find you for two weeks."
We stopped the concert.
I ended up having to go to my hotel room and listen to a honeymoon couple
through the wall in the next room.
Let's listen to that number now, that's shooting up the charts,
called Little Red Rooster.
# I am the little red rooster
# Too lazy to crow for days...#
The following year, in 1964,
the Rolling Stones, who Marshall Chess would later manage,
became the latest sensation after the Beatles.
Their early releases included numerous Chess covers,
including a version of Howlin' Wolf's Little Red Rooster.
# Keep everything in the farmyard
# I've said it every way. #
When they first became the Rolling Stones, they were playing not quite the whole Chess repertoire,
but, you know, maybe 90% of what they were doing.
# The dogs begin to bark
# And hounds begin to howl
Out of all the British invasion bands of the mid-1960s,
it was the Rolling Stones who really turned white America
on to the blues that Chess had released a decade earlier.
It was kind of blinding.
Which is a point where, you know, a bunch of guys from the UK
got to introduce blues to America because
America, both black - you know, the black radio and media circle,
says, "That's older people's music, nobody trying to hear that no more,"
and white circles just being totally oblivious to black music.
The Rolling Stones' devotion to the music of Chess Records
led them to the label's Chicago studio in 1964.
I picked up the phone and it was Andrew Oldham, the manager of the Rolling Stones,
saying, "We're coming to tour in America, we'd love to record at the Chess studios."
My mind is, "These guys think they're going to record in Chess studios,
"it's going to sound like a Chess record."
The reason Chess records sound the way they do
is because of the artist, because of the way they're played.
I have many memories of Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters
coming to meet them to try and hustle their songs to them.
And the great Keith Richards story of saying he saw Muddy Waters painting the building, which is bullshit,
which has been verified as bullshit over and over again.
It must have been extraordinary for those people, to see these guys who were
"rock stars." Rock stars.
And they had come to Chess Records on purpose,
The attention the Rolling Stones gave to Chess Records
revitalised the careers of its blues acts.
# Little red rooster...#
Chess artists like Howlin' Wolf, to their surprise,
were now receiving invitations to perform on America's most popular programmes
like the Ed Sullivan Show and Shindig.
They gave exposure to Howlin' Wolf, no-one knew Howlin' Wolf.
Mick Jagger talked about Howlin' Wolf, all of a sudden people knew about Howlin' Wolf.
As white college kids of 1965 danced to Howlin' Wolf,
the Chess empire continued to grow.
The label was about to move into huge new premises, with much larger overheads.
They needed a massive hit to keep up the momentum.
# Rescue me, take me in your arms...#
On the 2nd September, 1965,
a recent Chess signing, a pianist and singer from St Louis, Fontella Bass, was recording a song at Chess.
I was at the studio when she was recording Rescue Me,
and Leonard and I stood up and gave each other five.
Now, Leonard was too square to give somebody five,
but Leonard gave me five that day and we both said "That's a hit."
# Come on, baby, and rescue me
# Come on, baby, and rescue me
# Cos I need you... #
Leonard had his hit.
Rescue Me was one of the label's biggest ever singles,
reaching number one on the billboard R'n'B charts
and selling over a million copies.
This was a boom time for Chess.
Their new, huge, eight-storey complex also housed a pressing plant and recording studios.
Their business was growing, their soul artists were climbing the charts,
and their jazz line was releasing big sellers, like Ramsey Lewis's album, The In Crowd.
Leonard was thrilled with the continuing popularity of his jazz and soul artists.
# Something deep down in my soul...#
Even his favourite diva, Etta James, whose career had dipped since her early 60s triumphs,
was back, recording classics like "Tell Mama" and "I'd rather Go Blind."
But, despite the success in the jazz and soul genres,
Leonard wished his old blues musicians were sharing similar sales figures.
Leonard was still, in his heart, a blues man.
I mean, I can see a tear in his eye
when his guys, Muddy and all these guys, were sort of waning in popularity.
In fact, Leonard was now devoting more and more time to Radio WVON and handing his son
greater responsibilities and creative influence at the label.
Marshall, now in his mid-20s, was embracing the new psychedelic movement sweeping the States.
and he believed that Charles Stepney,
a classically-trained arranger at the label
had the potential to radically expand the musical language of Chess in this strange new musical era.
Charles Stepney, to me, was my musical idol.
Oh, boy, did he blow our minds.
His whole being was music. He wasn't just a musician.
He was mus-IC.
One of Marshall's plans with Charles Stepney
was to introduce Muddy Waters to the hippy masses, with the album with the album Electric Mud.
# I don't want you to
# To be no slave
# I don't want you to... #
I used my Muddy Waters like a movie director would use Marlon Brando
I needed a lead character who was a star.
And we told Muddy we were going to do a high energy album
Hard rock. And Muddy's scratching his head, he don't know,
"How the hell did this come about? I don't know, man..."
I mean, he really didn't, couldn't fathom the idea of,
what the hell, we were gonna be taking him out of his orbit.
We said, "No, Muddy, all you've got to do is sing exactly what you've been singing,
"what we'll do is change the arrangements."
# I just want to make
# Love to you
# Love to you
# Love to you. #
Although Electric Mud was criticised by music journalists on its release,
the album was one of Muddy's biggest sellers ever and became a cult album.
You really need to listen to it a few times
to see how they'd arrived at these things.
It wasn't designed to be a sort of paperback version of an album.
Finding out that the approach was being panned at that particular day
by purists made me gravitate to it even more.
And even dig the attempt even more.
But Marshall and Charles Stepney's work with the Rotary Connection
caught the spirit of the times far more successfully.
I wanted to do an interracial, soft music, psychedelic album.
And the concept was, "If you're having a bad trip on LSD,
"or mushrooms," which was sweeping America at the time,
"put Rotary Connection on, it's going to bring you down."
On the Rotary Connection's debut album,
Charles Stepney blended the sounds of violins, French horns and sitars into a psychedelic landscape.
It wasn't just that he was classically gifted
and a tremendous musician and...
also able to play jazz and rhythm and blues,
but he was also able to lift everybody up to a whole new level.
It was beautiful.
It exploded. I think it sold 25,000 in the first week in Chicago.
We'd never had a record like that.
Although the Rotary Connection's debut album
was a big hit in the Midwest,
Charles Stepney's work would come to national attention
when he applied his innovative approach
to the more traditional soul sound
of the Chess Records vocal group the Dells.
# And I miss you, baby, with all my heart and soul
# Let's put our love somewhere... #
He would make us musically bow down
to whatever it was
that he had in his mind.
We respected him so much and he respected us.
The Dells became the biggest sellers on the label in the late 1960s.
Chess Records, which started out in 1950
as a specialist label in Chicago
was now a mighty independent corporation.
But America was on fire at the end of that decade
and Leonard Chess decided it was time
to take one of the biggest gambles of his life.
In April 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated
and black America exploded.
I got up the following morning
and I got to the freeway
and the entire...
All the farms at the side of the freeway looked like army camp
and then al the tanks and armoured cars and so forth
came rolling down Michigan Avenue.
Just months later, the Chicago Democratic Convention
ended in riots.
During these tumultuous times,
Chess Records itself became a target.
There was a lot of pressure being put on then
from the black militants
because of the white man owning the label.
They thought the white man was making all the money.
They did put pressure on Chess Records.
This was all too much for Leonard.
With ambitious plans already laid to break into the black TV market,
Leonard decided to sell the record label
he had spent two decades building.
But his TV ambitions were never realised.
On the 16th of October 1969,
whilst driving to his radio station WVON,
Leonard, aged 52,
had another heart attack.
This time it was fatal.
It was a big shock to everyone at Chess.
The whole company was... I went there two days after he died,
everyone saw me and broke into tears,
I broke into tears.
I cried my eyeballs out, you know.
I lost the best friend I every had,
one of the best friends I ever had.
At the funeral, four days later,
Muddy Waters wept at Leonard's grave side.
Muddy expressed the loss he felt on Leonard's radio station WVON.
-Is that Muddy Waters?
-How are you?
Not too good, I guess. It's bad news.
We were acquainted in 1946. We were pretty close,
all the way down through the years.
I think if he were living, he would say what I'm saying now.
-He made me and I made him.
I'd like to say I've lost a good friend.
Yes, Muddy Waters, we've all lost a good friend.
# I didn't want to have to do it
# Didn't want to have to be the one to say it... #
Under the label's new owners, GRT,
General Recorded Tape,
Marshall was made President
and hated it.
They bought a creative machine and didn't even realise it.
They stifled the creativity of Chess.
I saw the record company destroyed
in whatever time it was that Leonard passed.
In 1970, a disillusioned Marshall Chess
left the label to manage Britain's most famous Chess fans,
the Rolling Stones.
Phil Chess continued to work in radio broadcasting.
The label itself limped on under the control of GRT until 1975
when it was sold again.
The glory days of Chess Records were over.
There's a spirit in that music produced from that time
that has not only musical significance
but historical significance.
I could think of Chess as being possibly a contender
for the greatest record label of all time.
That sort of coming together of...
of culture always creates something interesting,
it really does
and certainly it did in this case.
So great was the label's musical and historical significance
that when the Voyager space rocket was launched in 1977,
the time capsule it was carrying included a Chess classic
alongside the works of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart
it was Chuck Berry's Johnny B Goode.
My children, unfortunately, never got to meet their grandfather,
but I said, "Kids, can you believe this?
"Your grandfather produced the record
"sent out to outer space?"
# We're back up in the woods among the evergreen... #
I said, "What could be better than that?
"An immigrant from Poland
"coming to America and ending up making a record
"that's representing humanity?"
# Go, go, go, Johnny, go
# Go, go, go, go, Johnny, go
# Go, go, go, Johnny, go
# Go, go, go, Johnny, go
# Johnny B Goode. #
Chicago's Chess Records was one of the greatest labels of the post-war era, ranking alongside other mighty independents like Atlantic, Stax and Sun. From 1950 till its demise at the end of the 60s, Chess released a myriad of electric blues, rock 'n' roll and soul classics that helped change the landscape of black and white popular music.
Chess was the label that gave the world such sonic adventurers as Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf and Etta James. In this documentary to mark the label's 60th anniversary, the likes of Jimmy Page, Mick Hucknall, Public Enemy's Chuck D, Paul Jones and Little Steven, as well as those attached to the label such as founder's son Marshall Chess, pay tribute to its extraordinary music and influence.
The film reveals how two Polish immigrants, Leonard and Phil Chess, forged friendships with black musicians in late 1940s Chicago, shrewdly building a speciality blues label into a huge independent worth millions by the end of the 1960s. Full of vivid period detail, it places the Chess story within a wider social and historical context - as well as being about some of the greatest music ever recorded, it is, inevitably, about race in America during these tumultuous times.