Last night's episode of Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues, called "Godfathers and Sons," was a fascinating failure: fascinating because it gave insight into what made Chicago special in the development of the blues, especially the electric blues, and had some great recent and archival performances by Koko Taylor, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, Magic Slim, Paul Butterfield, and Otis Rush, and gave a real taste of the sights and sounds of Chicago. But a failure because the dramatic catalyst for Marc Levin's film is an experiment combining hip-hop and the blues that just doesn't work despite everyone's enthusiasm - the artificiality of hip-hop and the REALNESS of the blues just don't mix this time around (although Beck, G. Love, Soul Coughing, Fugees, Everlast, Outkast, and others have successfully combined elements of the blues with hip-hop).
Another problem is that the main character Marshall Chess, son of Chess founder and figurehead Leonard Chess, just isn't that compelling a figure. He is too far removed from the actual creation process to be able to give us a sense of history in the making - especially the history made in the '50s when he was just a youngster hanging around. And though he worked for the company through most of the '60s, he didn't produce any of the truly great Chess music - he as a follower not a leader, and the one record he did produce that is featured in the show, the Muddy Waters psychedelic-blues fusion called Electric Mud, is no more than an interesting failure in its own right. That the film's co-lead Chuck D of Public Enemy claims Electric Mud was his own door into the blues comes off as a convenient plot device rather than any kind of insight.
But the biggest problem was mentioned by Brent Staples in an editorial in the NY Times before the series began:
- The real money came into play when British rock bands - like the Rolling Stones and Cream - began to rerecord blues standards, paying out millions in royalties that should have gone to the blues artists who wrote the songs. Many bluesmen found that the rights to their work belonged to publishers associated with their record companies.
The lawsuits flew hot and heavy in Chicago, where the big artists associated with Chess Records filed nasty claims charging that the publishing firm owned partly by the Chess brothers had swindled them. Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon received undisclosed settlements and eventually regained ownership of the disputed songs. Howlin' Wolf died while his case was still tied up in litigation - a lesson to other musicians to settle while they could.