Marshall Chess: All the right moves
Unquestionably one of only a handful of record labels that can claim to have changed the course of popular music, Chicago-based Chess Records - in signing and developing some of the most seminal artists in recorded music history, including the likes of Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf - undoubtedly provided the early blueprint for some of the world’s biggest-ever selling acts (Britain’s The Beatles and The Rolling Stones included) and in turn ultimately helped set the fundamental foundation-stone for popular music as we know it.
All of which is currently evidenced in a new 4CD box set ‘A Complete Introduction To Chess’. Which - acting as an informative and indispensible guide to the legendary label - features a staggering 100 tracks, including UK chart hits from the likes of rock & roll icon Chuck Berry; America’s original Queen of Soul Etta James; mid-Sixties soulstress Fontella Bass; plus crossover jazz/soul pianist Ramsey Lewis. All of which additionally proves how - while known originally and primarily as the home of the blues - Chess’ varied output during its quarter-century existence (1950 to 1975) also later extensively encompassed such varied black music styles as doo-wop, R&B and soul as well as progressive new directions in psychedelic jazz and funk.
… Which in turn proves the ideal cue for Pete Lewis to speak in-depth to Marshall Chess - son and nephew respectively of Chess Records founders, Polish American immigrants Leonard and Phil Chess. Indeed, having started working at his family’s label at just 10 years old, Marshall would ultimately end up doing everything from pressing records and loading trucks to producing over 100 Chess Records projects and eventually heading-up the label as President (after its GRT acquisition in 1969), before quitting in 1970 and going on to become founding president of Chess-influenced British rockers The Rolling Stones’ high-profile own label Rolling Stones Records.
Indeed, with Chess’ relevance in contemporary music ranging from hip hoppers sampling late-Sixties Blues albums like Muddy Waters’ ‘Electric Mud’ and Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘The Howlin’ Wolf Album’ to London girls Amy Winehouse and Adele’s take on vintage soul harking back to the Sixties US R&B chart-toppers of the aforementioned Etta James, 68-year-old Marshall proves a highly-informative, enthusiastic and all-round fascinating interviewee.
PETE: What are your ideas on the new 4CD box set ‘A Complete Introduction To Chess’?
MARSHALL: “Well, what I realised years ago, is that the Chess label is something people DISCOVER. You know, because music has become such a major part of the culture of the young people growing up, a large percentage of them are really getting interested in the roots of a lot of the music that’s happening TODAY. And, with Chess being such a seminal label that was crucial to the whole foundation of rock & roll and pop, Universal Music - who own the Chess catalogue - are smart enough to KNOW that every so many years there’s a new audience out there wanting to discover it. So, while there have been many box sets of Chess in the past, the timing was definitely right historically for a NEW one - and this is a beautiful little package! They’ve picked some great sides; it’s been mastered to the highest quality… Plus it shows the DIVERSITY of the label - from the very early blues all the way up to the more sophisticated Seventies R&B at the end.”
PETE: So how do you personally recall your early days growing up as part of the Chess Records family?
MARSHALL: “My father was a workaholic. And so, for me to be around him, I had to join him at WORK. So I began working for Chess very young. They tell me that I was actually 10 when I went on my first trip with my father to the South, in a car visiting disc jockeys! You know, this was 1952 - before cell-phones and the internet - and the distribution of records was very different from today! Back then you had to go from town to town, looking for new places to get your records sold and new radio stations to play them… And, in terms of the actual OFFICE, my first job was probably getting coffee! Like 20 times a day I’d walk two blocks to the corner to get drinks for everyone! Then from there I began loading trucks, working in the shipping room… And, by the time I was 16, I was actually working with a record press! You know, I was being raised to be a RECORD man like my father and my uncle. And back in the early days of the record business, a record man was the guy who DID everything and KNEW everything! He found the artists, he recorded the artists, he arranged for the manufacturing, the distribution, the sales, the radio play… You know, he did it ALL!”
PETE: So what was the background behind your father and uncle (Leonard and Phil Chess respectively) first setting up Chess Records in Chicago in 1950?
MARSHALL: “My father did not like working for anyone. He wanted to be independent - and his first business was a liquor store selling alcohol in a very bad black neighbourhood. He’d basically decided to start out there because it was the cheapest rent! And while there, he soon discovered how black people love to have a good time, that they bought a lot of liquor… And so he sold the liquor store and, in the same neighbourhood, opened a corner pub that had a jukebox - which in turn gave him his first experience of knowing what a hit RECORD was! Because obviously there’d be favourites in the jukebox that the people would play over and over. So from there he went on to start a club that had food and live music called the Macomba Lounge, which became a regular after-hours hangout for jazz players. And, because many of the players would get up and jam, it was actually in the lounge that my father was first approached by a blues and jazz record label - Aristocrat Records - to record one of his bands playing live. After which he immediately thought ‘Oh, ANOTHER business with black people!’!... You know, because he’d seen how black people loved their music and loved having a good time, he saw recording as another business for him to branch into! Like, after World War II there was a whole rising group of black people in America with money to spend on having a good time. So, when Friday night would come, they’d go out dancing, listening to music... And it was out of that social climate that Chess Records was born! You know, from 1947 to 1950 - as well as running his club - my father was working as a salesman for the Aristocrat label. And then when - in 1950 - the club burnt down in a big fire, my dad basically took the insurance money, bought out the partners of Aristocrat Records - and renamed it CHESS Records!”
PETE; Chess Records’ Fifties blues output had a massive impact on the whole British blues and beat boom of the following decade, with groups like The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds. What were your thoughts about that at the time?
MARSHALL: “Well, to our surprise, by osmosis somehow that great early Chess stuff got into the UK. And so, very early on, we found a couple of scruffy Englishmen knocking at the Chess Records’ door in Chicago saying ‘We’re The Chess Records Appreciation Society from England’!.. I mean we didn’t even know what they were TALKING about! But anyway, I took them and I showed them the Chess Master Book, which was like a big black book with everything written in script - this was before the days of typewriters and computers in the office - and they put their hands on that book like it was The Holy Grail!.. And that was our first inkling of what was happening in England! But then, as you know, shortly after that groups like The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and The Kinks all started doing Chess material and talking about Chess artists. The Stones were pushing Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf; The Yardbirds were pushing Sonny Boy Williamson... Plus there were shows like ‘Ready Steady Go’, who’d bring the Chess artists over and put them on television in England... So yeah, I definitely credit the English with really helping break the legacy of Chess to a whole new audience.”
PETE: A Chess’ artist of significance was surely Etta James. Who, by scoring consistent US R&B success, shortly after her arrival at the label became dubbed America’s first Queen of Soul…
MARSHALL: “Yes, because Etta was - and still is - undoubtedly a brilliant artist, we enticed her over to Chess… And we of course we ended up having hit after hit! You know, once we created the formula of recording her with violins and a symphony orchestra for such standards as ‘At Last’, things broke wide open for both her and Chess. And as a person, Etta was very close to my family - especially my father. But, though he had a great rapport with her, when he’d produce her in the studio they’d be ROUGH on each other! He’d push her until she’d cry; he’d rip up her contract... Anything to get that EMOTION out of her! You know, my dad knew how to get emotion out of a singer just like Alfred Hitchcock knew how to get emotion out of an actor!”
PETE: Etta James’s success also spearheaded Chess’ move into soul music in the Sixties, via such legendary acts as The Dells, Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, Mitty Collier…
MARSHALL: “Well, like I said, we were in the black record BUSINESS. We’d started in the Fifties with the blues, but then we became very aware that the market was CHANGING. You know, blues morphed into soul music, into R&B… And then Motown exploded with a whole OTHER sound. So yeah, we were riding the WAVE! Because both us and our artists wanted SUCCESS! Again, like I said, for us it wasn’t just trying to make great records for ART’S sake. It was about trying to make great record for BUSINESS’ sake! Because what the artists and my family learnt very early, was that the greatest music made the most MONEY! Which is why Chess had so many rare and unissued tracks. We RECORDED a lot, but only put out what we thought was GREAT.”
PETE: A major force behind Chess’ success with soul music was producer and song writer Billy Davis. Who, having previously written in Detroit with then-future Motown Records’ boss Berry Gordy, worked for Chess from 1960 to 1968…
MARSHALL: “Yes, Billy Davis made a BIG difference to the Sixties era of Chess. And what a lot of people don’t know, is that both Billy and Berry Gordy first came to Chess with a label called Anna Records - which was named after Berry’s sister Anna Gordy. And the first Miracles’ record - ‘Bad Girl’ - did actually come out on Chess! But then, when Berry decided to found Motown and went back to Detroit, we enticed Billy to STAY! Because we knew that this R&B/soul thing was taking over and replacing the blues - and that Billy was a great PRODUCER! So Billy stayed with Chess, and of course ended up having SO much influence - with hits like Fontella Bass’ ‘Rescue Me’ (a 1965 transatlantic pop and R&B smash) to Mitty Collier’s ‘I Had A Talk With My Man Last Night’.. You know, one after the OTHER!... I mean, Chess in general during that time had some really great soul acts - from people like Sugar Pie DeSanto and Billy Stewart right up to groups like The Dells, who for that sound became our flagship act in the late Sixties when we paired them up with our great arranger Charles Stepney.”
PETE: The late-Sixties also found you personally branching out to create your own, more experimental Cadet Concept label as a division of Chess Records…
MARSHALL: “The thinking there was simple - I wanted my own label! You know, I’d paid my dues; I’d worked eight years under my family... And the secret was, I had the key to the recording studio - and it was empty most nights! So the whole thing started with an idea called The Rotary Connection - a multi-racial-slash-psychedelic/soul/jazz group who had the great artist Minnie Riperton in it. You know, the great thing about being owners of a record label is you can do whatever you WANT! You don’t have to listen to anyone’s opinion, you can do different things without the criticism... And, though it didn’t do much overseas, as the first of my own projects The Rotary Connection did sell fantastically well in the States!”
PETE: So what are your memories like of the late, great Minnie Riperton (who later, after signing with Epic Records, became an internationally successful solo artist in the latter half of the Seventies before her untimely death from cancer in 1979)?
MARSHALL: “Minnie Riperton and I were very close friends. She began singing professionally at 16 - while in High School - in a girl-group called The Gems, who were signed to Chess. Then at 18, after graduating, she became the front-door receptionist at Chess - while also doing a lot of background singing on records by people like Bo Diddley. So - as we’d become good friends - when I put together the idea for The Rotary Connection, she was the first person I WENT to. You know, she had this high note that I totally loved; she had a great set of lungs; she could sing... So I put her together with this young band of players I’d used for some other Chess albums; I added strings and The Chicago Symphony Orchestra… And that became The Rotary Connection!”
PETE: So what were your reasons for leaving Chess Records in 1970?
MARSHALL: “Well, what happened is my father - unexpectedly and surprisingly - decided to sell Chess Records. Which made me quite shocked and depressed, because I’d always felt I’d been raised to run it. He basically wanted to sell Chess Records -plus a black radio station he owned - and get into black television, and I was gonna get a nice bit of money for my part of Chess and start my own label. But then, six months after Chess was sold, my dad died unexpectedly while the radio station was still in the process of being sold. And the people who’d bought Chess then made me label President - and I HATED it! You know, the new owners (GRT) were just TERRIBLE! They fired most of the people, they wanted to close the studios... Like all big business, they didn’t understand what they were BUYING! I mean, they were buying this fantastic creative machine, and they just destroyed it! So I was very unhappy - and QUIT!... And then six months later I ended up as founding president of The Rolling Stones’ new label, Rolling Stones Records .”
PETE: So how would you sum up in general the significance of Chess Records?
MARSHALL: “I’d say, if not the greatest creative label of all time, Chess is at least in the Top Three! And the reason why I say ‘greatest’ is that - even though I think Atlantic and Motown are fabulous - they didn’t have the BREADTH of Chess. And the thing that really sets Chess apart is the fact that that electric blues and that early Chuck Berry/Bo Diddley stuff really did lay the foundation of ROCK & ROLL! And rock & roll changed the WORLD! I mean, when Carl Sagan - the famous astronomer - sent Voyager 1 and 2 into outer space to contact aliens, they put a disc on the satellite. And that disc contained Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven - and ‘Johnny B Goode’! And I often told my children, when they were very young, ‘Your grandfather produced a record that’s representing the earth to ALIENS!’... Now, what could be better than THAT?!”
Don't miss Pete Lewis' fascinating full interview with Marshall Chess in our limited edition Blues & Soul magazine. As Marshall talks in full about Chess' first artist (inherited from Aristocrat) Muddy Waters and his ‘Electric Mud’ album. Also other Chess greats including legendary Bo Diddley and iconic rock-&-roller Chuck Berry - not to be missed. You can order your copy from this site now.
The 4CD box set album ‘A Complete Introduction To Chess’ is out now through Universal Music Group International
Words PETE LEWIS