Heroes (Part 3)
Studio sage and onion Leonard Chess on the turntable.
Leonard Chess is this month's hero of early record production. John Morrish explains how Chess started his label almost by accident, and found Chuck Berry, who'd been turned down by other companies as "a negro singing country music".
We know now how the first white rock 'n' roll stars fared. But while Buddy and Elvis and Bill were enjoying their first successes, their black counterparts were trying to find their own ways of pushing across racial lines.
Interestingly, the white people who were most important in the development of black music tended to belong to national and racial groups just outside the white anglo-saxon mainstream: Greeks, Italians, and especially Jews.
Leonard and Phil Chess were two Polish Jews who came over to Chicago and set themselves up, eventually, as the owners of a series of clubs. The last of these was the Macamba Lounge, an after-hours drinking club with a solidly black clientele.
One day Leonard and Phil were speaking to a young blues singer called Andrew Tibbs when they heard that a talent scout from a West Coast record label was coming to set up a demo recording with him.
Rather than let this happen, they decided they could record him themselves. Leonard put a studio in his garage and a record was made, on their new Aristocrat label. It was a modest success and more discs followed, until in 1950 they changed their minds about the name. A southern distribution man had suggested that the association of the word Aristocrat with black music was doing them no good. So the label became Chess.
Aristocrat had been predominantly a jazz label, but Chess was to specialise in blues. To keep his contacts fresh, Leonard would take a 5,000 mile trip down to the South every three months. On the way he would drop off records, take orders, and speak to would-be artists. More than once he took the wire recorder out of the boot of his car and made a record there and then.
On one such trip he struck a deal with one Sam Phillips of Memphis, Tennessee, who promised to send him the best new blues sides he recorded. It all kept the new enterprise busy, and brother Phil had to sell the club and concentrate solidly on the business side of the record company.
But Leonard Chess was not just a buyer of talent. He was also a record producer, in the original sense of the word, meaning someone who puts musicians in a room, encourages them to play at their peak, and puts the results down on a tape, a wire or an acetate disc. In his recordings with people like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker, he somehow developed a Chess style. I say "somehow" because Leonard Chess himself was modest about his achievements: "I didn't know what I was doing," he told a "Chicago Tribune" reporter, "but I was doing it all myself, working days at the record company, nights at the club."
Information about the Chess studio and its techniques is almost entirely absent. We learn that after liking the hard sound he got from his garage, Leonard set up the first ever real echo chamber by fitting a speaker and a microphone in his bathroom. The legendary Chess sewer pipe also appears in most accounts of the studio: but did it have a mike at one end and a speaker at the other (Peter Guralnick) or was it hanging from the ceiling (!) to give a one-tenth of a second delay (Krista Reese)?
And, of course, there was some use of tape echo. But you can hear all that, even the sewer pipe, for yourself. It's a hard, edgy, sound in which guitars really do sound like "ringing a bell" and in which voices stand well forward of a background with drums the most prominent element.
"My father wanted drum, drum and more drum," Marshall Chess told Peter Guralnick. "I think he was responsible for doing that to the blues, to bring out a heavy beat." So much for his sonic preferences — what do we know about how he liked to work in the studio? After all, that is arguably the more important side of the producer's work.
Call our first witness. Etta James was signed by Chess in 1960, and has a low opinion of Leonard's musical taste. She told "Rolling Stone" that Chess would go with her into the vocal booth and then pinch or punch her until she produced the appropriately expressive wails and squeals. "Whatever tune had the most eech or ooch or whatever, that's the one he thought was going to be a hit," she said.
Son Marshall Chess takes a kinder view: "You see, my father was a music lover, in a very strange way. People used to talk, they'd think he was a kind of freak, because all he'd ever want to do was to go to these little funky clubs that no white person would ever dream of going to, to hear new acts, to buy new talent. I don't think he ever thought of himself as a music lover. But he was in his own way."
The surviving brother, Phil Chess, is the most revealing about the Chess method. "Blues is nothing but the truth," he told Peter Guralnick, "truth that at one time or another in his lifetime the singer has felt. Our job was to try to bring out points in his mind that he might have forgotten, to give him ideas, to get him to think about some things that were happening down in Rolling Fork, Mississippi or wherever. It's actually like psychiatry, you try to talk to him for him to bring out the things himself."
The producer as psychiatrist: now that's an intriguing suggestion.
Some people have suggested that Chess found Chuck Berry because he wanted a black man who could sing like a white man, in a bizarre inversion of the Sam Phillips scheme for Elvis. This makes no sense: the reason Sam wanted his "white Negro" was so that he could cater for people who liked black music but weren't too sure about black people. If Chess wanted a white sound, he could have got himself a white singer. The fact is that Chuck, when he arrived, had already put together one of those strange trans-racial hybrids that make the 1950s so interesting.
The song he called "Ida Red" was just the most obvious example of the way he mixed blues and country motifs together. He had been mixing the two in the set he played with his band, then called the Johnny Johnson Trio but soon to be renamed, while he was still working days as a hairdresser and cosmetician.
In Spring 1955, the 29-year-old father of four was incited by Muddy Waters to leave his St. Louis, Missouri, home and go north along the blues trail to Chicago. When he got there, leaving his regular band behind, Chuck put together a demo tape (or more strictly, a wire) and went looking for a record deal. He took with him "Wee Wee Hours", a straight blues, "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Too Much Monkey Business", and the aforementioned "Ida Red", a country-music parody taken at high speed with a wailing guitar line over simple alternating chords.
He was turned down by both Capitol and Mercury records. As a Mercury executive reputedly said, "Who ever heard of a negro singing country music?"
So with a letter of introduction from Muddy Waters in his pocket, Chuck went off to see Leonard Chess. Chess liked what he heard: "I thought it was something new," he said later. He especially liked "Ida Red", no doubt because he thought it would get him across that race line for the first time. But he wanted changes. He wanted a new title, and he wanted a big beat.
The first came, appropriately enough, from a hair cream bottle. The second came slowly. Legend has it that 36 takes were necessary to get the final version of "Maybellene", as it was now known, in the can. Pianist Johnny Johnson was brought in from St Louis, plus Chess regulars like Willie Dixon on stand-up bass, drummer Jasper Thomas and maraca player Jerome Green. Chess concentrated on capturing "drum, drum and more drum", although some argue that this was done on the advice of DJ Alan Freed who wanted to fight the white rock 'n' roller Bill Haley head on. In any event Freed, and another DJ Russ Fratto, ended up with co-author credits: such was the hidden cost of airplay in 1955.
"The big beat, cars, and young love," said Chess. "It was a trend and we jumped on it." Jumped on it so hard, in fact, that it was nearly crushed out of existence. "Maybellene" is an uncharacteristically crude record. The beat is everything, obscuring Johnny Johnson's barrelhouse piano and some startling high-register bass by Willie Dixon. And Chuck's guitar break must be one of the most hesitant ever put on record: at times it sounds like he's going to stop all together. But over it all, hard clear and crisply enunciated, is Chuck's voice. It could not be further away from most contemporary black singers. There is no mumbling, slurring, no falsetto or flamboyant melisma. Instead Chuck tells the story.
Chess's instincts proved correct. Many radio stations actually believed Chuck was white and played his music accordingly. And by the time the "mistake" was discovered, the "damage" was done. 'Maybellene" was a big hit on both the rhythm and blues and pop charts. And everybody was happy.
Well, nearly everybody. Johnson, who had by now stepped down from being leader of his own trio to being a sideman for a former hairdresser, wasn't too happy. "We thought 'Maybellene' was a joke, y'know? People always liked it when we did it at the Cosmopolitan Club, but it was 'Wee Wee Hours' that we was proud of. That was our music."
Maybe so, but Chuck knew that any time he wanted to step down off the pop stage and play a little blues he could. In the mean time, there was a good living to be made. He'd found a style that suited him and he was ready to stick with it.
There is a parallel here with the New Orleans sound created by arranger Dave Bartholomew and engineer Cosimo Matassa in the latter's J & M studio, for Fats Domino they created a warm, relaxed sound that lasted from 1950's "The Fat Man" through to 1962's "You Win Again" with barely a change.
Lyrically, though, Chuck found things were a little more tricky. The first two follow-ups, "Thirty Days" and "No Money Down", spoke with some bitterness (despite the humour) of the hassles facing a 30-year-old black man in America. They flopped. "Roll Over Beethoven" protested only about the dearth of teenage music. It was a modest hit.
"Too Much Monkey Business" and "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" (read brown-skinned) asked real questions and flopped again. But in "School Day", "Rock and Roll Music", "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Johnny B. Goode" such questions were again pushed aside, and the result was his best sequence of hits. The damage was done: he was typecast as a perpetual teenager, and even three years in jail couldn't change that. 1964's "Nadine" and "No Particular Place To Go" saw him picking up where he had left off, at 17-going-on-38.
"Nadine" has a fuller sound than would have been possible in the Chess studios in 1955, even discounting the contribution of the tiny brass section and Bo Diddley's second guitar, but it is still recognisably the product of the same people who put together "Maybellene". Between the two there is a certain progression, but it is subtle enough that the sense of continuity is never put in doubt. "Thirty Days" is more bluesy, especially the shouted chorus. Johnson's piano is clear now. "Roll Over Beethoven" offers a cleaner sound still. "Too Much Monkey Business" boasts an experimental saxophone and a haze of tape-echo over the guitar, covering a multitude of sins.
"Brown Eyed Handsome Man" shows the influence of Berry's wild stable-mate Bo Diddley in its Latin-tinged rhythm. "Havana Moon" finds Berry's Latin obsessions running wild. In 1957 tape echo is the flavour of the month, and then in 1958 Chuck reaches his zenith with "Johnny B. Goode", featuring the most-imitated guitar introduction in history.
It's difficult to know where to set Chuck Berry's achievements. But if we were to build the perfect rock 'n' roll star, like Frankenstein's monster out of bits and pieces, have no doubt — he would be singing Chuck's words and playing Chuck's guitar lines.
"Chuck Berry's Golden Decade Vol 1" (Chess 6641 018)
Bo Diddley "Chess Masters" (Chess CXMD 4003)
Peter Guralnick "Feel Like Going Home" (chapter 11)
Feature by John Morrish
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