The Story of Chess Records (1998)
by John Collis
A few years back I read the excellent book, Record Makers and Record Breakers: Voices of Independent Rock n' Roll Pioneers by John Broven (University of Illinois Press, 2009.) That review has garnered a surprising number of page views, 1719 to date, putting it in the top 20 or so posts of all times in terms of views. I remember at the time thinking I should review more books about classic rock and roll labels from the 50s and 60s, but there is a lot of expensive, mediocre material out there, and I basically abandoned the area until recently, when I revisited some of my Amazon Wish List titles from that time period, and found The Story of Chess Records on the shelf at the San Diego Central Library.
The most recent piece of culture that focused on "the Chess Records story" was the thinly veiled Cadillac Records, with Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess, which literally was the Chess Records story under a different name. Today Chess Records is known for three things:
1. The label that broke Muddy Waters and played a huge part on the pre-rock and roll era with their Chicago area "electric blues" records.
2. The label that, along with Sun Records and Modern Records, essentially invented rock and roll, with Chuck Berry being the stand out artist.
3. Ripping off their artists by not paying appropriate royalties.
I'm sympathetic to Leonard Chess on the payment of royalties- as I've pointed out on this blog before, very often successful artists end up subsidizing the less successful artists simply because of the limited resources of most independent labels- robbing Peter to pay Paul, or to pay for the manufacture and distribution of Paul's records, more like.
Muddy Waters isn't my taste, and neither are his noted English imitators like the Rolling Stones, but it is interesting how the Stones managed to revive interest in Waters, a forgotten man in the music business prior to the British Invasion by a series of bands who worshipped the Blues.
On the balance, the most interesting part of this book are the numerous rare photographs and gig posters that immerse the reader in the look and feel of the glory days of 1950s-1960s independent music.