Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers And The Legendary Chess Records
Twenty years too late, at least, Nadine Cohodas has written a business history of Chicago’s legendary blues label. It has to have been a daunting and conflicting task, for Phil and Leonard Chess (nee Czyz, like the boxer) were entrepreneurs, not recordkeepers, and what records did exist were lost or destroyed, beginning with the label’s late 1968 sale to GRP.
Cohodas’ history, then, is based upon an analysis of trade magazine advertisements and coverage, interviews with surviving participants (notably, Phil Chess and Leonard’s son Marshall), and a survey of the printed record. It is the best that can be done at this late date, but much has been lost.
By any standards, Chess is a remarkable story: Two Polish-Jewish immigrants settle on the edge of Chicago’s black neighborhood, leave their father’s junk business to open a series of small liquor stores/bars, become partners in the fledgling Aristocrat label. Two decades later they had recorded (or caused to be recorded) some of the most influential artists of the post-WWII era (Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, etc.) while creating three linked labels and a publishing empire, and transforming black radio.
All of which means the Chess family was present for and participated in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, and that they were peers, rivals, and friends with the men who created much of the modern record industry. They were also, by Cohodas’ account, cheap, paternalistic, driven, unknowable, honorable men.
Inevitably there are unanswered and unanswerable questions. First among them, did Chess exploit its artists? Certainly a string of lawsuits allege this, and clearly the brothers rarely paid more than they had to, but by the time Cohodas began working on this book, most of the belligerents were dead. Perhaps because Cohodas draws heavily from her interviews with Phil and Marshall Chess, she gently suggests that the label followed what were then industry standards, and were by those terms comparatively generous.
The more perplexing question revolves around the brothers Chess themselves. Dozens of entrepreneurs opened and closed labels in the 1950s. Though Cohodas details the relentless travel schedule and hard work that drove Leonard and Phil Chess, she is never quite able to explain why they were drawn to the music industry, nor by what alchemy they were able to succeed commercially, and to leave behind such important and enduring art. Clearly they were astute judges of talent, on both sides of the microphone. But there has to have been more to it than that, and that part is lost to history.
Because Spinning Blues Into Gold is meant as a business history, and because Cohodas is not principally a music writer (her previous books are about Strom Thurmond and race and politics at Ole Miss), the music Chess sold and its social context are not as artfully presented as one might wish. On the other hand, because it is a business history she is able to reintroduce a number of artists who enjoyed chart success but whose hits did not become the names of British rock bands. Working without business records, she is never able to translate those chart positions into dollars and cents.
And that, perhaps, was the Chess brothers’ essential genius.