Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records
by Nadine Cohodas
St. Martin’s Griffin
Nadine Cohodas has written a highly entertaining account of the rise and fall of Chess Records. Chess Records was one of the early pioneers of rock and roll. Most people know that early discs by Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley were put out by the Chicago-based independent label. Blues fans recognize Chess as the label that launched the careers of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. It may not be as well know that the label also launched the careers of jazz artists Ramsey Lewis and Ahmad Jamal, and few people realize that the men behind the label were also the pioneers of what is now called “Urban Contemporary” radio. It’s a fascinating story of music, business, and the people who made both happen.
This book could easily turned into a recitation of records, release dates, and chart positions. All that is here, but Cohodas takes us beyond the numbers to show the dynamics at work behind the scenes. To understand how the Leonard and Phil Chess ran their business, you have to know something about the Jewish immigrant community they were raised in. The Polish-born brothers grew up around small businesses taking advantage of under served markets. The under-served market that the Chess family served was Chicago’s growing black community. When Leonard Chess decided to get into the record business, it was more because he recognized a potential market than because he loved music.
Music may have been the commodity, but it was produced for a community. The commitment of the Chess brothers to serving the black community is highlighted again and again throughout the book. Chess started WVON radio because no one was serving the needs of the black community. It made good business sense to support the community that supported his business.
Cohodas does an excellent job sifting fact from mythology. One of the popular myths about Chess Records is that they exploited the musicians who worked for them. Cohodas shows how Chess followed standard business practices of the times. They didn’t give their artists the best deal, but they didn’t outright rob them either. They could be paternalistic in both good and bad ways. What does come through is that the Chess brothers considered their business to be part of their family. They created the environment for people like Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry to thrive. When Chess Records was sold, the magic evaporated.
Spinning Blues Into Gold promises to tell you the story of a record company. Along the way, you meet some fascinating people, discover how the record industry worked (and to a large extent, still works), and takes you face to face with issues that are still at the heart of American life.