The Story of Chess Records

John Collis, Author, Buddy Guy, Foreword by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC $27.95 (192p) ISBN 978-1-58234-005-0
""Leonard didn't know nothing about no blues."" Such is the verdict of blues legend and Chess recording artist Muddy Waters on mogul Leonard Chess; presumably, then, brother and cofounder Phil knew less than nothing, since Leonard was the driving force behind the label. Whatever the truth about the feel these white immigrant entrepreneurs had for the African American music they marketed, their label has become practically synonymous with Chicago blues and certainly played a pivotal role in the development of American music. The key players here are 1950s breakthrough blues stalwarts Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, and Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, who led the turn to rock 'n' roll. Although Chess continued to record great artists like Buddy Guy and Etta James in the '60s, its moment had passed by 1969--the year of Leonard's death and its sale to GRT--and by '75 nothing was left but a back catalogue to be tussled over. Not only did the once-great label die an ignominious death, but here its business practices come across as shady at best, with many artists complaining that they were never paid fairly. Collis has produced a responsible, amply illustrated account, reproducing concert posters, album covers, publicity shots and a wealth of performance photos, all wittily captioned. Still, the lack of a comprehensive discography is unfortunate. Despite the compelling personalities who weave in and out of the text, the writing is uninspired, and the story of the rise and slow fade of an influential record label is not especially gripping. Perhaps not every great institution leaves a great story to be told. (Dec.)
Reviewed on: 09/28/1998
Release date: 10/01/1998
Genre: Nonfiction
Discover what to read next