Wednesday, December 17, 2008


The Delta Blues. It is interesting, and strange how most white Americans, even those who know and love music well,know little or nothing about the Delta Blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Little Walter, Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, Etta James, and even Chuck Berry. And yet if you cross the pond to England you discover that many, if not most of the legendary white founders of 'the British Invasion' readily recognize and own their great indebtedness to McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters) and his kin. I am referring to Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Robert Plant, and so many others.

And yet folks ranging from Elvis Presley to the Beach Boys all stole from these pioneers, and many of them got sued-- successfully I might add, for stealing the music of Willie Dixon and his kin (case in point-- Surfin' USA, except for the lyrics was a direct pirating of Chuck Berry's 'Maybelline'). Well, there is a reason for this amnesia. The blues when recorded in the 50s was called 'race records'-- for African Americans only, and white folks back then could hardly admit to themselves they liked black music, never mind own up to being indebted to it.

It is fair to say had it not been for the artists of Chess Records, there might never have been any rock and roll at all, and Alan Fried, the disc jockey (see the 1956 movie 'Rock, Rock, Rock') who allegedly coined the term first applied it to the music of Berry and other Chess artists.

Long before Motown and the Supremes, the Chess musicians of Chicago had become cross over artists on a huge scale-- especially Chuck Berry and Etta James (apparently the daughter of the legendary white pool player Minnesota Fats and a black woman). Etta is the last 'woman' standing so to speak, of the great Chess artists, and you will find that even her most recent records still 'cook', and are featured in the music shops in Memphis, especially those that cater to the Blues Music. But in fact this is the music that came from the southern most part of Mississippi, the Delta, and this is where the movie 'Cadillac Records' basically begins with Leonard Chess, a Polish immigrant from Chicago who loved black music searching out and finding artists like McKinley Morganfield.

First a few facts about this interesting, and well made movie. It's a less than two hour film that has an all star cast and the performances of Adrien Brody (as Chess), Mos Def as Chuck Berry, Beyonce Knowles as Etta James, Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon and others are wonderful and some are worthy of Oscar nominations. The movie is R rated, and has more than its share of foul language, and sexual innuendo and compromising scenes, but then this is a movie about the blues, and what prompts people to sing that way-- namely experiencing the consequences of their sin or someone sinning against them, and the sadness and suffering it brings. The blues are a person's way of trying to creatively deal with all that. If you want the Biblical equivalent, read a bunch of the laments in the Psalms, when the Hebrews are complaining about exile and sin and the like (see e.g. Ps. 51), an exile of their own making, in many cases.

Leonard Chess began his musical career running a club for African Americans in Chicago, with a goal of giving blues artists a chance to shine for an appreciative audience. He was about as strange a sponsor of such music as Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary Turkish producer of so much seminal rock and roll was. When the club was burned to the ground, he took the insurance money and opened up a storefront recording studio and record company named after himself.

Oddly enough, his first recording artist, Muddy Waters, had come to be known to him through the Library of Congress recordings made of 'folk' music from the Delta in 1941 and there after. It was 1950-52 when Chess managed to get things off the ground with the help of barnstorming tours by Waters and his session players, of course in the South where there were huge potential black audiences and plenty of juke joints to play in and make money.

Muddy Waters was a remarkable slide guitar player (if you want to see this sort of playing today, you almost have to be watching someone like Bonnie Raitt who owes her soul to Waters and the blues). Chess was an interesting man-- he did not do drugs, nor did he cheat on his wife (though he wanted to with Etta James towards the end), and he tried to do the remarkable tap dance of helping black music cross over to white audiences, whilst still trying to maintain segregation not only in the South, but also in most of the North as well when it came to clubs, restaurants and the like.

These were volatile times, and music was helping blur, and even tear down the racist walls that separated us. Nowhere was this more evident than in the career of Chuck Berry who against all odds began to gain fame as a black country guitar player and singer, and then came up with his own style of playing and singing on tunes like Maybelline and Johnny be Goode which did indeed help spawn the rock and roll craze. At the height of his fame he was arrested and thrown in an Indiana prison because-- despite not drinking or doing drugs or otherwise breaking the law, he made the mistake of dating white women. It was he who began the parade of Chess artists who successfully sued white artists who stole their tunes--- including artists ranging from the Beach Boys to Led Zeppelin.

This movie does a good job of showing just how ephemeral musical tastes and trends are when it comes to popular music. In the 50s and very early 60s Chess Records was riding high. By the time you have the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964, the wave of Chess Records had crested and fallen, taking with it Leonard Chess himself. On the very last day he owned Chess Records and the day Etta James sang her last tune for him, he had a heart-attack and died whilst driving away from studio in his Cadillac. Having nurtured the blues for well over a decade in old Chicago town, his life became a script for a blues ballad, and indeed this movie, in part.

The movie takes its name from the fact that Chess realized that poor African Americans could seldom hope to own a fancy house, so they settled for fancy cars, especially Cadillacs. He knew that the way to the heart of some of these folks, was through giving them such a dream car. Chess bequeathed a Cadillac to all his star artists. He was a smart business man, but unlike many studio executives, this man not only loved the music he supported, he loved various of the players, and treated them with respect, often rescuing them from one soap opera escapade after another. More than they ever acknowledged both later soul artists (think Aretha Franklin) and white artists (think Hall and Oates or some of the blues guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughn) owed a ton to these pioneers of the blues.

I cannot recommend this movie as family fare at Christmas, but for those who wish to understand that potent mix of music and social change and race relations in the volatile period of the 50s and 60s this movie is more than eye opening. In fact, it makes you want to sing the blues-- and that ain't always a bad thing, because singin' the blues is a way of tellin' the truth about your life, or life in general.

"I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees...."



Unknown said...

I overlooked the Escalading pun repeatedly ... and then finally noticed it ....LOL

Hoop said...

great article thanks

Dad said...

I hate to be a stickler, but Mississippi gets such little mention in the world that I can't resist. The Delta actually is the Western border of the state from Memphis down to Vicksburg. Well that's what I understand to be the Delta anyway. The actual Mississippi Rive delta is in Louisiana south of New Orleans. The Delta of blues fame is more of a flood plain. I could be totally misinformed, but that's what I grew up thinking.

Interesting post on the influence of blues. One must wonder, if blues had never been made relevant to the majority culture via rock n roll, would rich white guys be collecting old reccords of it? (there's white guys from my generation collecting 80's hip hop on cassettes). Furthermore would there be any need foe Public Radio?

chris said...

Surfin' USA was stolen from Berry's Sweet Little Sixteen, not Maybelline.

Ben Witherington said...

You are right Chris! I goofed. maybelline was the hit that put Berry on the map, that and his duck walk :)


Ed Brenegar said...

I love the blues because it is so honest about the hardship and aspirations of people. When God finds his place in it the Gospel takes on a real world dynamic that roots faith in that hard world.

I've been spending a good bit time in Natchez over the past couple years, and along rt.61 from Baton Rouge to Memphis there are places where the greats of blues are paid homage. The latest is BB King whose museum in Greenville just open this year. I'm hoping to pay a visit in February. I hear it is really spectacular. Here's the web address -