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.
….The director inexplicably allows Marshall Chess – whose father and uncle [Phil, who appears briefly in the film] started Chess Records – to dismiss the royalties issue in a few, glib lines. Marshall Chess describes the blues artists as childlike men who were interested only in Cadillacs and beautiful women, and who needed what he unfortunately describes as a “plantation owner” to look after their affairs.
Certainly there is some truth to Chess’s assertions, but his view is very skewed and the fact that it is left as the final word on the matter is disrespectful to the musicians, the music, and the truth. It also casts grave doubt on Marshall Chess’s judgment, and as a result, the rest of his commentary, upon which the film is based.
What this film doesn’t tell is that the story of the Chess brothers and their label burrows into the heart of such charged issues as art versus commerce and exposure versus exploitation – all tangled up in the miasma of race relations.
Lazer and Philip Chez, aged 11 and 6, were herded through Ellis Island on Columbus Day 1928 from their village near Pinsk, Poland, and transformed into Leonard and Phil Chess. They joined their father, who had been running a junkyard in a Jewish neighborhood near the South Side of Chicago. Their address, 1425 South Karlov Ave, provided the catalog number for the first Chess Records release.
Phil served in the Army during World War II. Leonard’s childhood polio left him with a limp, ineligible for military service. During the war, Leonard pursued various business interests, including liquor stores and bars of less than stellar repute.
Eventually, Leonard moved up to the Macomba Lounge, an upscale jazz and blues club at the heart of the South Side. The club featured major national acts including Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong. The predominantly black crowds were regular and enthusiastic, and as label talent scouts sniffed around the back door, Leonard realized he could sell records as well as drinks to his customers.
Muddy Waters recorded “I Can’t Be Satisfied” in April 1948 and the first issue sold out in 12 hours. Reeking of the country funk of the Delta, Waters’ single is a violent shout into the void that laid the foundation of the Chess sound – heavy on vicious electric slide guitar, thumping rhythm and unadulterated blues wailing.
Leonard reportedly couldn’t understand what Waters was singing in the studio, but he understood the sales and somehow knew the records sold because, not in spite, of the track’s rawness.
This insight is of such importance that American Heritage magazine (December 1994) selected the Chess brothers as among the 10 most important agents of change in America since 1950 with the following comment:
- “The Chess brothers made records that helped transport African-American culture, especially its language and music, to its central place in American culture…The Chess brothers’ story is one in which greed and inspiration swirled together in a characteristically American pot where the ingredients did not so much melt as alloy in a metallurgical sense: steel guitar, electricity, and vinyl transmuted into a wholly new cultural substance.”
In his autobiography I Am the Blues, Willie Dixon tends to minimize Leonard’s contributions as a producer, indicating that his main contribution was to rile up the musicians in the studio with a string of friendly curses and then leave them to take out their frustrations on the music (Leonard was notoriously crude, answering the phone with a “Hello, Motherfucker”).
However, an ability to bring out the best from musicians is one of the very definitions of producer. Also, it was in Dixon’s interest to play down Leonard’s input in that Dixon was also a producer and writer with the company, and felt rather unappreciated by the Chesses, especially financially.
Perhaps inadvertently, the Chesses contributed to the perception that they were exploiters of black music by downplaying their personal interest in that music. They both claimed to be “just businessmen.” Perhaps this attitude stemmed from some vestigial Old World notions of hierarchy, division of labor, or even the unseemliness of the music that they produced. Perhaps downplaying an affinity for the music helped the Chesses maintain emotional distance from their artists – many of whom they clearly took advantage of financially with recording, publishing and personal appearance contracts that screamed of inequity, but were standard for the time.
This is what Marshall should have said.
And, for good or for ill, the Chesses were clearly paternalistic: they “took care” of their most important artists. Muddy Waters worked with them for 20 years without a contract; they paid for the funeral of a destitute Little Walter; Howlin’ Wolf grumbled but stuck around, and the like.
The fact that the director Levin doesn’t pin Chess down on any of this, or even give the other side ANY creedence, leaves a huge hole in history and dooms his film to failure.