Chess Records: Phil, Lenny, & Stolen Loot

On October 17, 1961 two teens from Wentworth Primary School happened to meet at Dartford’s train station in England. A conversation ensued because one of the lads, Michael Jagger, held two Chess Records albums. Keith Richards recalled: The thing about Mick and my meeting was that he was carrying two albums with him: Rockin’ at the Hops by Chuck Berry and The Best of Muddy Waters.” A plaque at the Dartford station commemorates that fateful day but there should be a footnote by Mick and Keith that reads: “Many thanks to Chess Records for releasing music we’ve revered, recorded—and blatantly ‘borrowed.’”  Keith acknowledged his thievery, confessing, “I’ve stolen every lick Chuck Berry ever played.”

But millions of other guitarists wouldn’t have gotten their Berry licks if it weren’t for two brothers who originally released his music: Lejzor and Yasef Czyz who changed their names to Leonard and Phil Chess.  Years earlier, the Chess Records’ owners found that black music gave them great pleasure.  Their father owned a junkyard across the street from a Baptist church. As teens, the boys would work with their father on Sundays and hear gospel music.

Phil recalled: “They’d get going with that groove and you couldn’t help but stand there and dance. We gradually got a feel for this black blues. And thank God it took off.”

After Leonard heard Muddy Waters sing at a club, he asked, “What’s he saying? Who’s going to buy that?” Evelyn Aron, their partner in Aristocrat Records, answered that Muddy’s market consisted of blacks from the South who’d moved to Chicago for jobs.  Aristocrat pressed 3,000 records — which sold out in a day.

Chess Records was off and running; in one case, a musician came gunning for the owners.  Marshall Chess, Leonard’s son who later managed the Stones’ record label, remembered: “A lot of people who came to Chess records weren’t happy. Like, ‘Why isn’t my record a hit?’ Billy Stewart, the R&B artist, pulled out a pistol and shot our door because we wouldn’t let him in quick enough.”

Maybe Billy had a reason to come with a gun because the Chessmen employed ingenious methods to take money belonging to their genius artists.  Chuck Berry could’ve related to Woody Guthrie’s lyric in “Pretty Boy Floyd” (“Some will rob you with a six-gun, And some with a fountain pen”) when he learned that two of the phantom songwriters on his 1955 hit “Maybelline” were Alan Freed, the famed disc jockey and Russ Fratto who happened to be the landlord of Chess’ office and who accepted royalties in lieu of rental payment from Lenny and Phil.

Berry’s label mates realized that a steady stream of cash was only flowing to the Chess brothers. In the 1970s, Chess Records was sued by Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters for non-payment of royalties.  Howling Wolf sued for $2.5 million, claiming he was defrauded of his copyrights.  The lawsuits were settled out of court with Wolf’s case resolved after he died in 1976.

Marshall Chess could argue that the Chess founders might have been devilish in their business dealings, but their employees were no angels.

“We were dealing with blues artists…80% of them were drinking. There was a lot of yelling and fighting. Blues artists, often you could give them $2,000 on Friday and they’d be broke by Monday. Then they’d come in and say, ‘You f_ _ _ed me – where’s my money?’ You couldn’t be an angel and run Chess records in the ghetto in Chicago. It was like the Wild West, to be white in the black ghetto in that era.  When I used to take the money to the bank, it was in a paper bag, and on my way there I used to pass a liquor store/bar, and we used to talk about whether there was blood on the sidewalk outside that day. People carried knives then, not guns.”

The story of Chess Records and its cast of characters is one riveting story. Unfortunately, the 2008 film Cadillac Records, based on the rise and fall of Chess, failed to recoup its $12 million budget. One reason it bombed may have been miscasting; it featured Beyonce playing Etta James which is like casting Ryan Gosling to star in “The Leslie West Story.”

The film should have included a scene of Etta making a scene just by walking into a room.  Marshall Chess recalled: “Etta James was someone who knew how to make an entrance. I was in the Chess building when she first turned up in 1960. She walked down this narrow hallway and there was no way missing her. She was a big lady in those days, maybe 200 pounds. And she was the first black woman I’d seen with blonde hair. She had quite an entourage with her – a hairdresser, a dressmaker, a bull dyke lesbian dressed as a man, even a midget. It was like a live-action Fellini movie. She was out there. And she had this voice that my father knew how to get the best out of.”

Yes, the Chess brothers underpaid their employees but their label’s impact on music and musicians can’t be understated.  When the Beatles first came to America, Paul McCartney said they wanted to see Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters. After a reporter wondered, “Where’s that?” an incredulous McCartney asked, “Don’t you know who your own famous people are?”

-Mark Daponte

Photo: Chuck Berry (public domain)

Mark Daponte is a copy/blog writer for an advertising company and has published/sold four short stories, three full length screenplays, nine short screenplays (including two animation scripts) and punches up screenplays—because they don’t punch back. He has had six short comedic plays performed by various theater companies, including one in Los Angeles, (Sacred Fools) and Sacramento, CA (Sacramento Actors Theater Company). When he isn’t sinking down to a thirteen-year-old’s level to make his teenaged sons laugh, he can be found seeking signs of intelligent life in his hometown of Brooklyn, NY.

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