Swans Commentary » swans.com November 20, 2006  



The Birth Of The Blues


by Peter Byrne


Book/Film Review



Rich Cohen: Machers and Rockers: Chess Records and the Business of Rock & Roll, W.W. Norton, 2004, ISBN 0 39305 280 X, 220 pages.

In the UK, Rich Cohen: The Record Men: Chess Records and the Birth of Rock & Roll, Profile Books, 2005, ISBN 1 86197 766 2, 220 pages.

Godfathers and Sons, a film directed by Marc Levin, in the series "Martin Scorsese presents the Blues," Reverse Angle International & Vulcan Productions, 2003. (The seven films were presented by WGBH Boston on PBS and shown on the BBC as well as in festivals around the world. They are available on DVD.)


(Swans - November 20, 2006) 
Machers and Rockers

Rich Cohen shows straightway that he's on to a winner by setting his story astride two meetings of strangers. The first took place in Chicago in 1948 between Lezjor Czyz and McKinley Morganfield. The second also occurred in that city when, one morning in 1955, a young man from St. Louis, not long out of high school, waited with his guitar for the same Czyz to open his office. Czyz was a Polish Jew who had arrived as a twelve-year-old immigrant in the city. Morganfield had known the same kind of cultural shock as a grown man coming up from small town Mississippi in 1945. In Chicago he drove a delivery truck for a living.

It's Leonard Chess, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry that Rich Cohen evokes for us. Chess Records, founded by Leonard and his brother Phil, "became one of the great engines of American life, a creator of teen culture, a presser of race records that crossed over into the mainstream (p.14-5)." The Chess brothers, whose father was a peddler, were hard and shrewd businessmen of the kind that generations of poverty can produce. Chicago was as different from Morganfield's Clarksdale, Mississippi, as it was from the Polish shtetl that the boys Leonard and Phil had come from.

Muddy Waters brought the Delta Blues with him to the industrial city and transformed them in the bustling new environment. Electrifying the Blues, he created a new sound that, with its relentless backbeat, would fuel the music that was to come. His physical presence, full of weird authority, furnished the model for performers of the future. The Chicago cacophony roared away for several years. Then Chuck Berry "retooled the Blues into a racy machine that could run on the preoccupations of the white teenager" (p.15) and with his first Chess record gave birth to Rock & Roll.

Rich Cohen's approach rivals his subject matter in interest. A contributing editor to Rolling Stone, he'd written three previous books. (Sweet and Low, 2006, a family chronicle, comes afterward.) Tough Jews (1998) was about just that, mobsters. The Avengers (2000) told of other tough Jews revolting against the Nazis in Lithuania in WWII. Lake Effect (2003) is a memoir of Cohen's not-at-all-tough Jewish family that lived in the prosperous Chicago suburb of Glencoe. (It was by chance the place Leonard Chess moved to after he made his pile.) Rich and his buddy, as young aficionados, visited the Blues bars of Chicago's South Side. They must have been like the white people that Rich has a sneer for in Machers. Following Norman Mailer in his essay "The White Negro," they looked to Afro-Americans and their music for an authenticity they couldn't find in their own lives. Now the Chess Brothers were very tough Jews indeed and as funky and authentic as the blacks they lived and worked with in Chicago's ghetto. Rich Cohen is at home writing about Leonard and Phil, never passing over their cutthroat business tactics.

The Czyz-Chess family followed the ways of immigrants and moved into a street in Chicago full of people from their native place. It was in the Jewish quarter with Irish and Italians on one flank, and poor blacks on the other. The immigrant practice was to better oneself and in a generation move to a more desirable neighborhood, eventually even to a suburb like Glencoe. But the Chess brothers were in no hurry to leave. Their junk-dealer father had a store on the fringe of what Chicagoans called the black belt. It would be too much to say that Leonard and Phil had a fellow feeling for Afro-Americans. But they were not only close to them in the city's geography. Poor Jews from Eastern Europe were almost as low in the ethnic pecking order. The brothers decided to stay in the neighborhood and do business there.

Their amazing ascent started when Leonard began running a liquor store. He let his customers, who were exclusively black, sit around and drink in the back room, which boasted a jukebox. He'd learned English at school but perfected it behind the counter. "The result was a once-in-history hybrid, a Polish Jew with the voice of the cotton fields. He spoke black vernacular, slang and codes. (p.32)." The brothers bought a decrepit restaurant in the middle of Bronzeville, the polite name for the black belt. They refurbished it as the Macomba Lounge and hired a house band. By bribing the police they stayed open all night. The Macomba became the place to go in the hours before dawn. Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, and Max Roach were known to drop in.

Leonard noticed that talent scouts began turning up at the Macomba looking for musicians to record. Not one to be left out of deals done on his own turf he had a look at the record business. In 1947 he bought into a small independent record label called Aristocrat, run by Evelyn Aron and her husband. They were cultivated and assimilated Jews who might well have lived in Glencoe. Aristocrat recorded jazz, country and western, gospel, lounge ballads, and even polkas. The label showed only slight interest in down-home blues until late in 1948. Then Evelyn Aron insisted, in the face of Leonard's opposition, that Muddy Waters record I Can't be Satisfied. Its huge success heralded the great renewal of the country blues in the early 1950s.

Leonard at this stage had less knowledge of the music than astonishment at its existence. He understood no more than when as a boy he and Phil used to stand in front of their father's store bemused at the sounds coming from the black church opposite. But he saw that with an investment of three hundred dollars he could make a thousand. He brought driving energy to Aristocrat Records and not only took to distributing records from the back of his Cadillac, but to screaming and cursing in the recording studio to get the best performances from his artists. There was a story of him throwing out a lethargic drummer and getting behind the kit himself to pound out the backbeat.

This wasn't the style of Evelyn Aron and, in 1950, with ten thousand borrowed dollars, Leonard bought her out. He and Phil were now sole owners of Aristocrat Records. They'd had enough of the Macomba Lounge, where gunshots and knife play were not unknown. It conveniently burnt down and yielded insurance money. In no time the brothers changed the label's name to Chess Records.

Leonard was no philanthropist. He scoured the South in his Cadillac placing records and sniffing out the scene. He would pay off DJs and tie up ingenuous performers in contracts where Chess couldn't lose. He was the Chicago Jewish plantation owner. He might be good for a small loan or money to pay the rent, but the recipient would find himself locked into an agreement he hadn't understood or unable to collect his due when the time came to be paid.

It was Willie Dixon who summed up best the Chess brothers' unequal partnership with black artists. An immense talent, Dixon was indispensable in the studio. He wrote the great hits of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf amongst others. He played bass, produced recording sessions, discovered talent, swept floors, answered telephones, and packed records. There's no doubt that in more enlightened times he would have been an eminent record executive. Rich Cohen notes his ambivalence (p.142): "Some of Dixon's last words on earth were bad words about Leonard Chess. He said Leonard never paid what he owed, and what he did pay had to be dragged out of him. Dixon explained that, though Leonard was a cheap, chiseling son-of-a-bitch, none of it [the recording] would have happened without him."

There were reasons why innumerable independent record labels sprung up in these years. Only a tiny investment was needed to press a record. Overheads were incredibly low. If the record failed, little was lost. But if it succeeded, a fly-by-night set up could gross a hundred thousand dollars. Because race records were beyond the pale of the Majors and because independent operations were relatively small beer, the little labels were left alone and in some cases prospered inordinately. By the late 1950s Chess Records was grossing three million dollars a year. By attention to the tastes of black Americans, Chess was writing the history of modern pop music. Its list of artists was a chronicle of who had marked the times.

By the mid-sixties, however, the wind changed. The black community had got itself together and life became difficult for white owners of black businesses. (Leonard had become more visible by buying radio and TV stations serving blacks.) The assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 also sounded the death knell for the Jewish record men. Moreover, the Majors had begun to move in on the Independents. Leonard sold the Chess label to one of them for six and a half million dollars plus stock. He died later in the year at fifty-two, and Phil retired to Arizona. In twenty years Leonard "had made millions, assembled the greatest catalogue in the history of the Blues, reinvented popular music twice, first by ushering in the electric Blues, then by ushering in Rock & Roll.(p.188)." Rich Cohen tells a lively and stylish story. His bursts of enthusiasm occasionally garble the timeline and lead to repetitions and thin stretches where he slows down to get his breath back. But there are other less readable studies of Chess Records that make filling in missing names and numbers easy.

Godfathers and Sons

When faced with the mighty subject of Chicago Blues, Marc Levin's failure of nerve as a documentary filmmaker can be understood. The entire historical canvas couldn't be crammed into two hours. That would include the great migration from the South stretching back to the teens of the last century; the taking shape of an Afro-American city within a northern industrial metropolis; the always present but ever changing racial tensions; the explosion of the civil rights movement; the incessant development of the music from its beginnings on the edge of cotton fields till it underpinned the third millennium popular culture of the planet. "The Blues are the roots," said Willie Dixon, "everything else is the fruits."

That would be too big an orchard to take stock of. In any case, the aim of Martin Scorsese's series was not only knowledge but entertainment. Levin needed a juicy angle, a focus that would rivet our interest. It could have been the continuous transformation of the music. Or he could have concentrated on the lives of one of the greats, like Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf. Again, Machers and Rockers shows that there was plenty of foul-mouthed drama in the recalcitrance to the system of performers like Willie Dixon (p. 146: "I call it swindling when you take advantage of someone who don't know no better."); Bo Diddley (p.151: "When I left [Chess Records] they said I owed them 150 grand."); and of the whole black community in 1968 (p.182: "Why is the biggest Negro station in the city owned by a Polish Jew?").

Levin's attention could have centered on the never less than colorful Chicago venues where the music thrived. There were fifty-three clubs in the city in the 1950s with names fit to fire the imagination, like Rock Bottom, The Alibi Club, The Zanzibar and The Plantation. Or why couldn't he have checked out the lesser independent record men who pressed disks? There had to be a story in, say, the J.O.B. label started by Joe Brown, a Cherokee Indian, and his partner St. Louis Jimmy. Or in Parrot Records founded by the DJ and booking agent Al Benson. What about Bernard Isaac Abrams's Maxwell Radio Record Co.? It was only a radio store situated in the Maxwell Street market where bluesmen played on the curb. Little Walter walked in one day out of the rain and the Ora-Nelle label was created revealing probably the greatest harmonica player of all time.

In short, Chicago ran over with fascinating Blues' tales to tell. For that matter, there's no reason why, like Rich Cohen in Machers, Levin couldn't have put Chess Records at the center of his enquiry. That unlikely collaboration of immigrants and migrants beset with friction and hostile undercurrents would have made a fine and vibrant documentary. Instead, Levin chose to hitch his wagon to someone who is anything but a star, Marshall Chess, the son of Leonard.

We can place Marshall Chess if we think back to Rich Cohen's picture of the first generation of crude, ruthless, and creative Jewish businessmen and their American sons, tamed and already on their way to mealy-mouthed conformity. Marshall grew up in the shadow of Chess Records but never played a real part in the business. As we have seen, Leonard, always on top of events, sold Chess Records in 1968 when he realized the days of the Independents were over. Chess money provided for Marshall who, riding on family momentum, got a job managing the Rolling Stones that would last for seven years. Then he put away the "sex, drugs and Rock & Roll" life, got married and played at being a record man himself, far from Chicago.

So why ever did Levin choose to put Marshall at the heart of his documentary on the Chicago Blues? Maybe the man's contacts were valuable, or his archives particularly rich. Or maybe Levin had no real ideas of his own on the subject and took the easy way out making use of a volunteer big mouth.

The upshot is that Levin traps us all in something like an autobiography of a thoroughly uninteresting person with a fixed smile, while all the time fascinating characters loom up on all sides. To top it off, he allows Marshall to structure the film around the celebration of perhaps his most embarrassing project. That was the production of Electric Mud in 1968, dubbed by connoisseurs as "the worst Blues album ever made." It consisted of a lot of psychedelic doodling on the carcass of poor Muddy Waters who was doing the boss's son a favor. (Muddy afterwards referred to the album as "dogshit.")

The Chicago tale of giants thus ended in a midget's bathtub of nostalgia. Marshall's not the type to face up to the irruption of black artists' anger in the 1960s at white record executives like his father and uncle. The subject arises in a conversation between Marshall and Chuck D of Public Enemy. But Levin, to his discredit, makes sure that no sparks fly. In his commentary, included on the DVD, the director tells us that he enjoyed making Godfathers and Sons because it was a change from the usual "serious" subjects he treated in documentaries. The Blues just fun and froth? That would have surprised Willie Dixon whom Rich Cohen quotes (p. 141): "You see all this music comes from slave days. It is the music of the imprisoned Negro. It is three chords, this music, and those three chords come from the three-beat cadence of the field slaves hollering across the fields."

In the pauses between Marshall's rosy memories, Levin looks for traces of the Blues today. The enquiry inevitably goes down the shrinking-giants' path. He opens and closes at Koko Taylor's Blues club in Chicago. Koko was around in the 1950s, having come right up from picking cotton to a maid's job in Chicago and recording at Chess Records. But her club now has the look of an adjunct to Social Security services. Levin's visit to the Chicago 2001 Blues Festival makes us think of a Chamber of Commerce promotion. Nevertheless, there are some remarkable survivors on show. Pinetop Perkins, ninety-four, sits up straight at piano, while Ike Turner, his one time pupil, dances around him at a couple of keyboards. Sam Lay plays drums and sings. He'd been with Paul Butterfield's Blues Band backing up Bob Dylan at Newport in 1965 when the singer went electric. Lesser lights like Otis Rush and Magic Slim show they are still alive and kicking.

In the end, though, it's the period stills and film clips that make Godfathers and Sons worthwhile. There's even some footage of Leonard and Phil's Macomba Lounge inside and out. We see Muddy Waters in all his tonsorial splendor delivering Hoochie Coochie Man. Howlin' Wolf appears for a chat and a number in a rare and impressive clip. Bo Diddley and Sonny Boy Williamson II do their stuff.

Under the influence of these gems from the past, Levin shot some of his contemporary scenes in black and white. You have to wonder if he didn't have the same feeling we did: That a thorough hunt in the archives would have been an improvement on his stringing together, with Marshall Chess as prompter, of not very much at all.

Ironically, most of the other directors of the series make more of their lesser subjects than Marc Levin does with the feast of Chicago Blues. Directors Mike Figgis, Clint Eastwood, Wim Wenders, and Martin Scorsese himself all give us memorable films worthy of the Blues.


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About the Author

Peter Byrne was born in Chicago, attended universities in Quebec and Paris, and lived for long periods, teaching and writing, in Montreal, London, Paris, Italy -- north and south -- Sofia, and Istanbul. He now lives in the Italian city of Lecce within sight of Albania on a very clear day.



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Published November 20, 2006