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Black and White and Heard All Over

A new book captures chess Records' past.

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Marshall Chess was 55 years old and living in New York three years ago when a call came from a lawyer friend in Washington, D.C. "He said he knew this writer, Nadine Cohodas, who was writing a book about my father, my uncle, and their business," says Chess. "He said, 'I think this is the author you should work with.'"

Chess talked to Cohodas for hours about the Chicago record company his father, Leonard, and uncle, Phil, founded; Phil and Phil's son, Terry, did too. They all have high praise for the recently released book, Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records, which is a family history, a history of rock 'n' roll and blues, and a bittersweet story of blacks and Jews in changing south-side neighborhoods. "I learned more about my family from reading that book than I learned even from my father," says Terry Chess. "It gave me a sense of my roots and origins."

Cohodas seems an unlikely writer for such a book. She's not from Chicago, she's not a musician, and music is not her speciality. She was born in Michigan and raised in Appleton, Wisconsin. For ten years she covered Congress for the Congressional Quarterly, where she developed an interest in race issues. She wrote a book about Senator Strom Thurmond, the old segregationist from South Carolina, and another about the integration of the University of Mississippi. The idea for the book on the Chess brothers came after she read singer Etta James's autobiography. "Her portrait of her relationship with Leonard is sweet and affectionate and yet complicated," says Cohodas. "I thought, this is interesting. This is a story that's never been told."

Actually, the general outlines of the Chess story are well-known to rock fans, particularly the label's influence on artists such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who recorded several tunes at the company's south-side studio. But many of the details of the brothers' trek were unknown or shrouded in myth before Cohodas wrote her book. She describes how the Chess brothers were born to Yasef and Cyrla Czyz, in Motele, Poland. The family came to America in 1922, sailing to Ellis Island on a steamship, the Mauretania, before heading to Chicago, where an uncle lived. They settled on the west side, in an apartment at 1425 S. Karlov; Leonard graduated from Crane High School, Phil from Marshall. Their father ran a scrap yard, the Wabash Junk Shop, at 2971 S. State, and Leonard went to work there in 1941, the same year he married a neighborhood girl named Revetta Sloan. They moved to a third-floor walk-up on Drexel Boulevard, and in 1942 Marshall was born. "Leonard was restless and unhappy as a junk dealer and growing tired of arguments with his father over how to run the business," Cohodas writes.

So he decided to start his own business. He bought a liquor store, Cut-Rate Liquors, at 5060 S. State, which, Cohodas notes, "had a bar and a 'soundie' machine--kind of like a jukebox that played music with pictures." In 1946 he bought the Congress Buffet, a "little eatery" at 3905 S. Cottage Grove, which he renamed the Macomba Lounge and revamped to include a bar and some booths.

The Macomba was on a busy stretch of Bronzeville, the center of the south side's burgeoning black community. "Between 1940 and 1950 the city's black population increased 77 percent," Cohodas writes. "The Illinois Central railroad became their Mauretania, the station at Twelfth Street and Michigan Avenue the Ellis Island for these new migrants."

After Phil got out of the army he went to work with his brother at the Macomba. They brought in Tom Archia, a tenor saxophonist, to lead the house band and turned it into a hot after-hours joint whose rough-and-tumble crowd included gamblers, prostitutes, and dope dealers. Leonard fit right in. He carried a "chrome-plated, pearl-handled .44 revolver," Cohodas writes, and he talked as though he'd been raised in a black neighborhood. "If Leonard didn't call you a motherfucker," a nephew told Cohodas, "it meant he didn't like you."

"Marshall went to the Macomba just once, when he was five, but it was a memorable visit," Cohodas writes. "It was the night somebody fired a gun during a fight. His father threw him behind the bar like a football and lay on top of him for protection. Fifty years later Marshall could still remember his face pressed against the floor, taking in the pungent smells: a combination of beer, cigarette smoke, and damp wood."

Once the brothers were running a nightclub catering to black clientele, they decided that if they were going to make money from black music they might as well record it themselves. They started Chess Records in 1950 and within a few years had a sterling lineup of blues, jazz, and rock artists, including Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, Ramsey Lewis, and Chuck Berry. They built a recording studio at 2120 S. Michigan and another one at 320 E. 21st Street. And for the next two decades they pushed their product with relentless determination, traveling all over the country to sell records in juke joints and at radio stations.

By 1969 their company was recognized as a pioneer in the business, and rock stars had already covered their songs. The Chess brothers were millionaires with a back catalog of hits ranging from "Johnny B. Goode" to "The In-Crowd." They owned two radio stations, WVON AM and WSDM FM, and they were planning to move into television. But then Leonard, who was only 52, died of a heart attack. Within a year or two Phil sold his share of the business. The studios closed, and the artists signed with other labels. Chess Records was gone. "When it went," says Marshall Chess, "it went fast."

Cohodas spent three years researching the book, regularly flying to Chicago to interview musicians and sort through libraries and archives. "I got caught up in the story in a personal way," she says. "Their story really hit close to home. I am the granddaughter of eastern European Jews who came to the midwest. In some ways Leonard and Phil reminded me of my grandparents and how hard they worked to put together their business."

In some of the more illuminating passages of her book, Cohodas examines sensitive issues concerning race and exploitation. There's no shortage of testimony from black musicians as to the generosity of the Chess brothers. "Wonderful things happened to me because of my success on records," Muddy Waters says in the book. "The first was that a friendship developed between Leonard Chess and myself, for which I wouldn't take a million dollars....We became more than business associates, real intimate friends. I tell everyone who asks that the one person responsible for my success is Leonard."

Yet other performers, particularly Chuck Berry and Howlin' Wolf, bitterly complained that they never received a fair share of the royalties their songs produced. To some degree, the relationship between musicians and the Chess brothers is like that of writers to publishers. Cohodas quotes singer Jackie Ross describing a confrontation with Leonard Chess over royalties. "I...said 'I want to know where the rest of my money is.' I was not satisfied with what I was told." According to Cohodas, Ross "disagreed with the notion that she shouldn't concern herself with sales royalties because the record was really a means to better and more performing dates. 'They sounded like I should be grateful because they put my name out there so I could work.'"

In the end Cohodas decides there's no way to determine the merit of Berry and Wolf's complaints, since most of the evidence, such as contracts and sales records, has either vanished or never existed. "It's more complicated than, 'Oh, they were white racists who were awful,'" says Cohodas. "I think Jackie Ross makes a point--they did make it seem they were doing the artists a favor by making their records. But that's how it was back then. It was a different time. There weren't million-dollar recording contracts.

"But in many ways Leonard and Phil were way ahead of the times. There was a level of integration that was staggering for back then. Chuck Berry visited Phil's house and stayed in the same bedroom as Terry. Willie Dixon stopped by their house in Highland Park. Marshall's bar mitzvah was integrated. This was in 1955, a year after Brown [the landmark Supreme Court school-desegregation decision]. When Leonard died there was a genuine outpouring of grief. It gave me chills to hear the [on-the-air] comments made by WVON news director Roy Wood. He said, 'What do you say to a friend when he leaves your presence bound for Home?' He answered, 'Shalom.' And all the while 'My Precious Lord' is playing. This still gives me chills.

"It doesn't excuse anything Leonard might have done. And believe me, on the whole issue of what was done to whom--how I wish so many papers were not lost. But as Marshall said, 'My father was tough, and shrewd--but he wasn't a crook.'"

The interviews with Cohodas brought back a flood of memories for Marshall Chess. "I believe in the now--I don't want to live in the past," he says. "But I'm glad Nadine did the book. She got me thinking about the whole Jewish immigrant experience. I mean, look at our experience. I started going to Shakespeare elementary on the south side. I used to walk there when we were living at 4414 S. Drexel. Then my dad made some money, and we moved to 8136 S. Yates--and I went to Horace Mann grade school and South Shore High School. Six months into my freshman year we moved to Glencoe. I don't know why we moved. We just moved. I entered New Trier, which was almost all Christian back then. Can you believe that! Talk about a fish out of water. They were two separate worlds, although at New Trier I met Michael Bloomfield, who became quite a blues guitarist. He was probably the only kid at New Trier who knew about Chess Records. He was really into Chuck Berry. He had a big red guitar, a big Gibson. He saw me in the hall looking so eccentric, with my Elvis ducktail, and he came right up to me. He wanted to know who I was."

After high school he moved to Chicago and went to work for his father and uncle. His job was to sign up younger acts, and he had some success, particularly with the Rotary Connection. But after his father died he quarreled with the new owners. "I was unhappy with the people who bought Chess--to me it was the destruction of Chess," he says. "So I quit. I was going to start my own label, and Boz Scaggs was going to be the first artist. But that fell through."

Then he heard that Mick Jagger wanted to hire new managers for the Rolling Stones. "I knew Mick Jagger because of the sessions he had done at Chess in Chicago," Chess says. "I got his phone number and called, and a few weeks later I went to England. He hired me. I joined a little trio that Mick had assembled to help run things. It was a good fit for me and the Stones at first--you know, they got their name from a Chess song. They were lovers of our music--the music of the blues. We were all the same age, born around '41 or '42. I loved it, but it was a rocky ride working with them. In some ways, working with artists like Howlin' Wolf made me able to handle the Rolling Stones. I was used to eccentricity and breaking the rules."

He stayed with the band until 1978. "I worked with them for about seven years--from Sticky Fingers to Black and Blue. Then I quit. I went into seclusion. The best way I can describe it is that it was like an intimate love affair. It's hot, and then it cools off and it just wears you out. I was doing too many drugs, doing too much traveling, dealing with too many difficult people. Even though everyone kisses your ass, it's not about you--it's about them."

In 1978 he bought a house in upstate New York--most of the family, except for Terry, left the Chicago area; Phil now lives in Arizona. "I met a woman, got married, had two kids. It took me a couple of years to recover, but I recovered. I'm producing records. Life goes on.

"I don't get to Chicago much. But it's still a part of me. When I think about it, it's an amazing story, and I'm glad Nadine told it. For me it's more than blues or rock 'n' roll or Chess Records or WVON. It's about a white family that dipped into black culture long before the rest of white America did."

Wiedersberg Wins a Round

A blurb in the paper said that Steve Wiedersberg had lost his case. Wiedersberg's the bold and brassy cabdriver I profiled in a July 21 cover story, the guy who looks like Jesse Ventura and sounds like Don King. In March his cab was stolen by a gun-waving thug; in April he filed a pro se federal lawsuit against the city on the grounds that its antidiscrimination taxi ordinance endangered his life by requiring cabbies to pick up every passenger, including would-be robbers and murderers. (The city argues that without the ordinance drivers would deny service to perfectly law-abiding people, usually young black men.)

I called Wiedersberg and got him in the late morning after he'd been up all night on his usual graveyard shift. "Here's what happened," he explained. "I went into court on August 30 by myself. It was me against two lawyers from the city. Judge [Charles] Kocoras called us to the bench and said, in so many words, that my pleading has gone a long way but I'm not an attorney. So he questioned whether I can go further in court. I could tell he was getting ready to dismiss my case with prejudice--meaning, you know, that I wouldn't have a damn chance on appeal--when I said, 'Excuse me, your honor, but may I have a reply?'

I told him that I now have an attorney--Mr. E. Duke McNeil, who's one of the finest attorneys in the whole city of Chicago, by the way. I've been knowing Duke for almost 30-something years. I said, 'Your honor, I believe my attorney may be able to point out something in there that I haven't seen. Anyway, I would appreciate it if you don't dismiss with prejudice.'

"Well, the judge sort of smiled and said, 'I see you know the term. You really have done your homework.' Then he gave me 60 days to appeal before he dismissed my case with prejudice. You should have seen those attorneys for the city. Their faces dropped. They're thinking, 'Damn, back in court again!'

"Then we went downstairs to the lobby of the courthouse, and it was the usual thing. All the media mobbed me and treated me like I was the heavyweight champion of the world. And they treated the lawyers from the city like they're scum. I told all those reporters, 'We might be in the tenth round, but it's a 13-round fight. It ain't over yet!'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Chicago Tribune/Darrow Montgomery.

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