Sunday, April 11, 2010

Nadine Cohodas: Spinning Blues into Gold (2000)

I've been increasingly fascinated by Chess Records for a while now, as readers may have noticed. This seemed like the best way to learn more. Full title: Spinning Blues into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records. The book seems to be out of print now, and fetches big prices used. A pity: it's awesome.

Look up Cohodas on Amazon and you'll find that she wrote two books before this one and two after. The two after are bios of Nina Simone and Dinah Washington, perfectly understandable next steps from this one. The two before are examinations of racial politics in the south: one about Ole Miss and the other about Strom Thurmond.

That right there explains what's great about this book. It's by someone who's put in the time to really understand the business and artistry of blues, jazz, and soul, and who has also spent a great deal of time thinking about race in America. This is one of the best books I've read about either of those subjects.

A point she makes early is that Chess, as a family-run operation that operated, as most independent labels did, by the seat of its pants, didn't leave much in the way of internal documentation. To sketch the rise of the company and its music she has to rely on perusals of old issues of Cash Box and Billboard, and on inferences she can draw from what is known about contemporary labels such as Atlantic, Modern, and Dot. This threatened to be a weakness in the book but turns out to be a strength, because she does an incredible job of contextualizing the company's accomplishments by explaining the business environment in which r&b was recorded and sold in the '40s, '50s, and '60s. Leonard and Phil Chess were businessmen, first and last, and whatever contributions they may have made to American cultural history (and those contributions were huge), they were always in the effort to make money. And they did. My own understanding of the blues was largely formed by Francis Davis (and his is the best book I've ever read about the subject); part of his point is that blues has always been a form of popular music, rather than the unsullied and chthonic art form it's sometimes portrayed as, and that you'll understand it a lot better if you approach it with that in mind. To translate it into the terms of this book, it's important to understand not only that Muddy Waters's 1948 classic "I Can't Be Satisfied" expressed something about the black experience in Mississippi and Chicago up to that point, and Waters's own personal struggles, but also that it was a hit, with all the commercial considerations and consequences that entails.

But Cohodas doesn't allow her concern with the business side of Chess to deracinate the music. Far from it. As her bibliography suggests, Cohodas is nailing down the business side of the story precisely so that she can better get at the race relations that were at the heart of it. The stereotype is that Leonard and Phil were just two more in the long line of people exploiting black talent for a fraction of what it was worth. Cohodas's book neither confirms nor denies that: she does something better, which is to explore every facet of the relationship between the brothers and their musicians, and the community (both musical and geographical) that surrounded them. No doubt there was some sharp dealing on the part of the Chess brothers - but at the same time their operations were more integrated, and gave back a lot more to the black community, than most white-owned businesses of the time. It was a complex relationship, as most relationships are, without clear-cut heroes and villains, and Cohodas's treatment of it is brilliantly even-handed and thoughtful.

All of which may make it sound like the music itself gets short shrift. And because she doesn't spend pages rhapsodizing about Muddy's sound or Little Walter's or Etta James's - in that sense her treatment can seem a little brief. But would you be reading this book if you didn't already have some appreciation of this music? In short, she does the music justice, not by raving about it, but by showing how it came to be. And by exploring the company's history, rather than focusing on "the story of Chicago blues" or some such overdetermined trope, she ends up giving the reader a much better feel for what Chess/Checker/Argo/Cadet produced musically than any of the CD anthologies on the market.

Which are what, exactly? How do you build a thorough Chess collection? I've been immersing myself in this question lately. Here are some observations.

First, while Chess is best remembered for a certain style of blues (a sort of electrified Delta blues, made by small mostly hornless bands in Chicago and focusing on charismatic performances as much as catchy tunes; a good deal more brooding and less good-timey than the jump blues and r&b that was happening at the same time), epitomized by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, and others, they were important in a lot of other fields, as well.

Most obviously Chess (and by Chess I mean the parent label as well as the Checker and Argo/Cadet subsidiaries) helped define rock and roll in its formative period, largely through giving the world Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. We could stop right here and Chess would have been one of the best things that ever happened in this country.

But wait, as they say: there's more. While Chess blues was influential because it was so distinct from the kind of horn-driven r&b that was so popular through the late '40s and '50s, Chess released a lot of really good work in that area, too. Clarence "Frogman" Henry's immortal bit of weirdness "I Ain't Got A Home" (r.i.p. Corey Haines) and Bobby Charles's "See You Later Alligator" are just two of the many classics they released in this area.

The hardcore blues of Waters and Wolf and the jumpin' r&b of Frogman and his ilk fell from commercial favor as the '50s turned into the '60s, to be replaced by Soul - Motown, Stax, Atlantic. Chess didn't develop as distinctive an approach to soul as some other places, but they did release a lot of excellent soul records, big hits and neglected classics. Etta James, the Moonglows, Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, all the way up through the magnificent psychedelic soul of Rotary Connection.

Chess also, on their Argo (later Cadet) label, released a lot of jazz; most of this doesn't seem all that well remembered today, but Ahmad Jamal was verrrry influential (like, Miles constantly name-checked him influential), and Ramsey Lewis sold a boatload of records.

In addition, Chess, like most companies that sold to African-American markets, dabbled in gospel (some of Aretha Franklin's earliest work was on Chess). And they did important work in New Orleans: the Hawketts' 1954 "Mardi Gras Mambo," the first recording by any of the Neville Brothers, was on Chess.

In short, Chess released important records in just about every kind of African-American music stretching from the late '40s to the label's demise in 1975. But you wouldn't know it by any compilation that's ever been issued.

The closest thing to a comprehensive Chess collection that's ever been released is The Chess Story 1947-1975. It's out of print, and oh, look: it's selling for five hundred dollars used. Good luck with that. It's damn good, though, looking at all facets of the label's blues, r&b, r&r, and soul output. The best thing about it is that it looks at both the giants and the one-offs.

But even this Cadillac of box sets doesn't look at Chess's jazz or gospel recordings.

Near as I can tell the only anthology of Chess's gospel is a long out of print disc from 1992 called None But the Righteous: Chess Gospel Greats. This I have: I don't know gospel well enough to say whether this is particularly distinguished, but it's pretty awesome music. Serious liner notes, too, which is important given the obscurity of this music.

Chess's jazz offerings have been treated a little better. Jamal's work seems to be the most available. They also released a two-disc label anthology in 1996 called The History of Chess Jazz. This is a pretty enjoyable set. Again, I don't know how relevant Chess's jazz was overall, aside from Jamal and Lewis, but this has some interesting stuff: early recordings by Roland Kirk and Yusef Lateef, late recordings by Benny Goodman and Woody Herman, and a whole lot of good music in between.

Chess's blues is the aspect of their legacy that has received the hardest push. In 1997, for the 50th anniversary of the founding of Aristocrat Records (Chess's precursor), there was a whole slew of reissues and anthologies on MCA (which then controlled Chess). This included best-ofs for Muddy Waters (two volumes), Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Rogers, Lowell Fulson, and John Lee Hooker. I have several of these, but not all; it's a very attractive series, and it's a shame so many of them are out of print now. Of course many of these artists' Chess material was anthologized before this and after this, often more comprehensively. 1997 also saw entries in this series for the rock and soul artists (see below), and a few multi-artist blues anthologies: Aristocrat Of The Blues (the label's early years), two single-disc anthologies of the label's blues (Chess Blues Classics 1947-1956 and 1957-1967), The Chess Blues-Rock Songbook (partly an anthology of rock 'n' roll on Chess, and partly a collection blues originals later covered by rock artists - kind of a mess, really), and two instrument-themed collections: Chess Blues Piano Greats and Chess Blues Guitar (what, no harmonica volume?).

I list all these (a) because I had to search so long on Amazon before I figured out what this series comprised, and (b) because 1997 seems to have been the last time anybody tried to do something really comprehensive with the Chess catalog. The fact that most of it's out of print again is really sad. You can still get the major people, of course...

I don't have any of those multi-artist anthologies. I think the best collection of Chess blues is probably the box set they came out with in 1992 simply titled Chess Blues. It's still in print, and it's worth picking up. The more I learned about Chess, though, the more my regard for the set dimmed, and I don't rate as truly essential. Why? Because of two things the producers of the set seem to have been trying to do. One I fault them for, and one I don't.

I fault them for trying to appeal to collectors with this set as well as punters. There are a lot of previously-unreleased tracks on here, as well as things that were only released on obscure overseas compilations. That's all well and good, but often they come at the expense of some real classics. I can understand some of that, but there's too much of it here for my taste. It seriously diminishes the set's impact.

The thing I don't fault them for is diving Chess's blues-based output into two categories: hardcore Chicago blues in the manner of Muddy Waters, and r&b/r&r a la Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. The former they anthologized on Chess Blues, and the latter on a box set called Chess Rhythm & Roll. Unfortunately the latter is out of print and somewhat scarce, meaning it's hard to get the effect the producers were going for.

On second thought maybe I do fault them for this, because it leaves the Blues box feeling really limited - almost boring. Since their definition of blues is so narrow, many of the songs start sounding the same after a while. It shouldn't be like that, and wouldn't be if we were hearing the straight blues mixed in with the r&b, rock, and soul, which is how it was recorded. These sides of the business were not at all closed off from each other. Etta James shows up on both sets, as well she should; Bo Diddley only shows up on the r&r set, which makes no sense. Splitting up the genres like this, you'd never realize that Muddy Waters's "Mannish Boy" began as a parody of Bo's "I'm A Man." (Of course it grew into something more than that.)

What about the label's r&b, r&b, and soul? I don't have the Rhythm & Roll box. Looking at the track lineup, I can say it seems to give pretty short shrift to the '60s. That was rectified by the 50th anniversary releases, which saw individual artist compilations for Etta James (I know: blues or soul?), Bo Diddley (ditto), Little Milton (ditt0), Chuck Berry (ditto; two volumes), the Flamingos, the Moonglows, and Minnie Riperton, plus a two-disc anthology of their '60s soul records: Chess Soul: A Decade Of Chicago's Finest. Again, a lot of these artists have been anthologized elsewise. And again, a lot of this is out of print now.

I think the best place to learn about Chess's soul and r&r side is a recent British series called Chess Chartbusters. Six volumes, 120 songs, attractive packaging, good liner notes (some of the dates are off, though). Between the British Invasion's reverence for Muddy and the Wolf and the later Northern Soul movement's interest in lesser lights of '60s soul, Chess always seems to have been more respectfully received abroad, and this set is probably the best introduction out there to the label's output. Still no gospel or jazz (Ramsey Lewis's danceable numbers on here hardly count), and the selection of straight blues is spotty at best, but the selection of r&r and soul is excellent, and the set has the considerable virtue of throwing it all in the blender together. Hearing Sonny Boy next to Chuck Berry next to Laura Lee is enlightening, to say the least. It's not chronological, and it's hardly complete, but it's a great place to start.

Now, if you threw all that together and sorted it all out chronologically, so you could hear the highlights of Chess's catalog in chronological order, touching on all the bases from gospel to doo-wop to "Susie Q" (yep, that was Chess too)...then you'd have a thing of beauty.

My version came out at thirteen volumes. I haven't half digested it all yet: I make these anthologies to educate myself. What a sweet schooling it is, too.

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