Sex, Guns And Muddy Waters: An Interview With Marshall Chess, Part 1

One of the most famous and resonant names in the music industry, Marshall Chess has a Zelig-like knack for being in the right place at exactly the right time. Here he reels back through his rampantly incident-packed past in this rare, exclusive and definitive interview with Jon Wilde.
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One of the most famous and resonant names in the music industry, Marshall Chess has a Zelig-like knack for being in the right place at exactly the right time. Here he reels back through his rampantly incident-packed past in this rare, exclusive and definitive interview with Jon Wilde.

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Marshall Chess, the son of Chess Records co-founder Leonard Chess, spent his childhood hanging out with legends like Muddy Waters and experienced the heyday of the blues at close quarters. Through the Fifties and Sixties he befriended and worked with a pantheon of blues and soul innovators including Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, Etta James and Fontella Bass.

With the advent of rock’n’roll, he worked alongside Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, eventually becoming the latter’s road manager.

Following the death of his father and the sale of Chess Records in the late Sixties, Marshall became president of Rolling Stones Records. A permanent fixture of the band’s exclusive inner circle he partied hard while overseeing seminal albums like Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street during The Stones’ most fervently creative period.

In the early 1980s he worked at Sugar Hill Records and witnessed the creation of the earliest hip-hop masterpieces.

Now a youthful and zestful 72, he lives in a forest in upstate New York.

In this Sabotage Times archive interview from 2012, he reels back through his rampantly incident-packed past.

JW: What is your earliest memory?

MC: Gunshot. Loud gunshot. Before my father became a partner in Aristocrat Records, the precursor to Chess Records, he ran a club called The Macamba Lounge in Chicago, which opened in ’46. It was a hangout for jazz musicians, prostitutes, pimps, drug-dealers and hoodlums. It was a jumping kind of place, you could say. My father took me there when I was five. We walked in around eight o’clock at night. As we entered, there was a gunshot in the club. My father threw me over the bar into the hands of my uncle Phil. My uncle threw himself on top of me, pressing my face to the wooden floor. To this day I can still smell the rotten alcohol and cigarettes that the floor smelled of. That smell will never leave me. The club burned down shortly after that and my dad and my uncle went to work for Aristocrat Records whose first artist was Muddy Waters. After three years they bought the company and renamed it Chess and it grew into one of the most important record labels of all time. Maybe the most important.

JW: Do you recall the first time you met Muddy Waters?

MC: Sure. No forgetting that. I was six, playing in my front yard. This Cadillac pulls up. Muddy steps out and he’s wearing this fluorescent green suit. He was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. He says, “You must be Little Chess. I’m here to see your daddy.” I got to know him real well. He used to call me his little white grandson. Like all the musicians on Chess he mostly talked about drinking and sex. Muddy was particularly interested in sex. That was his thing. He’d always be asking me, “Did you get any yet?” When I started getting interested in girls, I was just looking to cop a feel or get a kiss. So Muddy sat down and wrote me a note that I copied and handed to this girl I was particularly interested in. Muddy was a gentleman of the highest order. Had he been born five hundred years earlier, he’d have been the leader of a tribe. He had that special aura about him.

JW: When did you start working for Chess?

MC: I was always hanging around the office as a kid, as often as I could. From the age of ten I’d go on trips with my dad, travelling through the American south, plugging records to the radio stations. But I got properly involved when I was thirteen. See my dad was a workaholic, never stopped. I figured the only way I could spend proper time with him was to go to work with him. He’d bought me a motor scooter and I’d ride that, illegally, down to the Chess office every morning of the summer holiday. I’d hang around the studio wearing my custom-made suit. I’d sweep floors, fetch drinks for the musicians, pack boxes, help load up the trucks, anything that needed doing.

I’ve always been at home in the world of black music. I could see a direct line from the bluesmen of Chess to the early hip-hop artists. There was a lot of street poetry in both those musical forms.

JW: How prevalent was drinking and drug-taking among the Chess artists?

MC: It was mostly drinking, 99%. Some of the artists would smoke marijuana but never in the studio. They’d do their smoking in the toilet next door and my father would always yell about it. This was long before rock stars habitually used cocaine and heroin. But the Chess guys drank. They’d drink first thing in the morning. A lot of them were alcoholics. But they didn’t consider it that. Drinking was just part of the blues culture.

Little Walter was an exception in that he was an alcoholic and a drug-abuser. Those traits often go hand in hand with genius. Miles Davis once said to me that Little Walter was as much a musical genius as Mozart and I wouldn’t disagree. The way he played harmonica completely transformed the blues. There was nobody at Chess more talented than Little Walter.

JW: Were you present at many of the legendary Chess recording sessions?

MC: Sure. Right from the start. I was present at the recording of Gene Ammons’ My Foolish Heart, the first ever Chess record. It was late at night and I couldn’t stay awake. They put two chairs together to make a bed for me and I dozed through the whole thing. But I got a taste for the recording studio after that. The session that’s most vibrant in my memory is Chuck Berry’s No Particular Place To Go. It was 1963. Chuck had just come out of prison, having served eighteen months for transporting a 14-year-old Apache waitress across a state line. He came straight from prison to Chicago. My dad told me to go meet him, gave me a hundred dollars, and I took Chuck to State Street to this men’s clothing store to buy him a couple of outfits. That same week he cut No Particular Place To Go at Chess Studios and I was there to witness it. The place was rocking. Two weeks after that I became his road manager and we were off on tour.

JW: Chuck Berry has a reputation for being difficult. Was that your impression of him?

MC: I met a lot of eccentric people working at Chess but Chuck was by far the most extreme in that sense. He has lived life by his own rules and doesn’t really care about other people’s rules. In a way you have to respect that. But it’s hard to deal with at times. He’s a true outlaw and laid the foundations for that rock’n’roll lifestyle. He went to jail for a second time in 1979 because he refused to pay his taxes. He could have paid up and avoided prison. But he didn’t care. I didn’t personally have any problems with him. It helped that I didn’t have to deal with the business end of his career.

Me and Chuck go back a long way. I was thirteen when he signed to Chess, having been recommended by Muddy Waters. He’d stop over at our house. He’d sleep in my bedroom. I used to take him out for breakfast and he’d always amaze me by ordering a strawberry shortcake as a starter. Chuck did everything differently to other people. Mostly we talked about cars and girls. He especially loved girls. He had one of the world’s first Polaroid cameras and had hundreds of pictures of beautiful girls. He was a creative guy. A poet. A genuine artist. He was a great musician and an inspired lyricist. He really understood the psychology of white teenagers. The teenage revolution began in 1955. Suddenly kids were driving around in flash cars, going to drive-in movies, drive-in hamburger joints. This was a whole new crazy cultural shift in America. It wasn’t happening in the black population but Chuck instinctively understood what was happening with the white kids and he captured that entire upheaval in his songs.

Chuck revolutionised the fortunes of Chess Records. From 1950 to 1955 we’d had blues hits. But even a number one record on the blues chart sold no more than 20,000. Then we signed Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Suddenly it all changed. I met Chuck recently in New York, hadn’t seen him in twelve years. I was telling him about the time in 1955 when my dad was driving through Chicago and we heard Maybellene being played for the first time on the biggest white radio station. My dad was so happy at that moment because he knew he’d got his first crossover hit. Life was different for us after that. We’d always been poor. Any profits from Chess were ploughed back into the label. My mother didn’t have a dollar to buy me a water pistol when all the other kids in the neighbourhood had them. As soon as Chess were having hits on the pop chart, my parents got lavish in terms of buying stuff for their kids. I was telling Chuck all this and saying that he’d radically changed my life. He said, “It wasn’t one-way traffic, Marshall. You guys made my life great. I couldn’t have gone anywhere without Chess Records.” That was an emotional meeting for me. I think it was emotional for Chuck too.

It was mostly drinking, 99%. Some of the artists would smoke marijuana but never in the studio. They’d do their smoking in the toilet next door and my father would always yell about it.

JW: What was the secret of Chess’s success?

MC: It was the artists. We had Beethoven, Bach and Mozart on the same label. That’s Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf. But it was also down to the feel for music that my father and uncle had. It goes back to their roots in this small village in Poland where one man had a wind-up Victrola. When he wound that thing up the whole fucking village would stand under the window to hear some music. When they moved to Chicago, their father (my grandfather) ran a scrap metal yard in the black neighbourhood. There was a black gospel church across the street, the kind with an upright piano, tambourine and drum. My grandfather used to take a strap to the boys because they were always late from listening to the music coming from the church. That would have been their first experience of black music. During the war my father wanted his own business and the cheapest rent was in black neighbourhoods. So he opened a liquor store. There was a huge influx of black workers who came up from the south where they were earning next to nothing. Suddenly they were making good money in the Chicago factories and wanted to party on the weekend so they bought plenty of alcohol. Then my daddy had a tavern with a jukebox. They kept feeding that jukebox with nickels and my dad had the first inkling of what made a hit record. Then came the Macambo Lounge. It was step by step. By the time my father and uncle started Chess they understood about music. Then they learned even more from the musicians they signed.

JW: Howlin’ Wolf is said to have been an intimidating presence. How did you find him?

MC: He was a gentle giant. If Wolf intimidated anybody it was because of his size. He was six feet six, weighed three hundred pounds. When he shook your hand it was like being squeezed by an enormous baseball glove. He had the biggest feet you’ve ever seen. He had to cut the sides of his shoes to get his feet in there. He was a sweet man, softly spoken, more of a listener. Then he’d get on stage and he was a man transformed. You’ve never seen anything so intense. On stage he could be very intimidating. The blues singer Koko Taylor once told me that he’d have to drink half a bottle of whiskey to get himself into the state where he could crawl around on stage and really let go with his voice. Sam Phillips once said that the greatest regret of his life was not signing Wolf to Sun Records. In fact, Chess almost ended up signing Elvis before he went to RCA.

JW: What other Chess artists left a big impression on you?

MC: 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 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. I never did find out the midget’s role in all of it. Etta always liked an entourage. She was a colourful character. She was drinking and taking drugs. She was out there. And she had this voice that my father knew how to get the best out of. Motivating the artists in the studio, that was one of my father’s great gifts. I learned a lot from him in that respect.

JW: When did you start producing records for Chess?

MC: I would have been sixteen. We worked fast in the studio. The aim was always three completed songs in a three hour session. But the musicians needed to be pushed all the time. I’d try to emulate my dad by urging the musicians on. “One more time, let’s try that one again.” Little by little I started to actually produce. My first proper recording session was 1958, Bo Diddley’s Clock Strikes Twelve, with Bo playing electric violin.

JW: You have been vocal in your criticism of the movie Cadillac Records. What was your main beef with it?

MC: It claimed to be based on the Chess story but they wrote my uncle Phil completely out of the story. When I made the deal to oversee the music in the film they agreed that my uncle Phil would be in it. He was in the script and they’d even hired an actor to play him. I believe they never intended to include him in the film because he’s still alive and they’d have had to pay him. When I saw the cut I asked them what happened to Phil and they said, “It didn’t work.” After fifty years in the business I was finally Hollywooded. Basically they lied.

Phil was as crucial to Chess Records as my father. It couldn’t have happened without Phil. He and my father had a symbiotic relationship. Like many brothers they were opposites. My father was an extrovert – pumped up, often hysterical, running everywhere at once. He was a type A personality. Phil, on the other hand, would light a cigar, put his feet on the table and look at tropical fish. They were completely different personalities but they utilized that. They divided the country into territories and hit the road to get DJs to play and stores to buy their records. All of us at Chess, we were record men. It’s something that doesn’t exist any more. We did it all – we signed the artists, picked the material, recorded the songs. Then we did all the manufacturing, distribution and promotion. Lock, stock and barrel. My father and uncle divided all that up by personality. Phil shouldn’t be overlooked. Ever. He’s a crucial part of the Chess story.

JW: Over the years there’s been much debate about whether artists were exploited by Chess, that they didn’t receive their full dues. What’s your take on that?

MC: You have to remember that the industry was in its infancy. There were no entertainment lawyers around then to analyse the figures. Like most small independent labels Chess was run in a Wild West kind of way. Musicians would come into the Chess office all the time asking for money. It could get fairly chaotic. My father and uncle had their own business model but they thought it was a fair one. Not for a single moment did I think that the artists were being ripped off. Just as a modern record company will charge an artist for video-making or promotion, Chess might have paid a DJ thousands of dollars to get a record played, then recouped it from royalties but they never short-changed an artist out of the sales of his or her records.

A lot of bullshit is talked about it. In the movie Cadillac Records you see the character based on my dad paying off Muddy Waters with a Cadillac. That never happened. We might have helped the artists get deals on their Cadillacs because they didn’t have bank accounts, but we never gave them cars instead of royalties. There’s never been a law suit against Chess Records, not a single one. No-one has ever shown that Chess Records was in any way crooked in its accounting.

My grandfather used to take a strap to the boys because they were always late from listening to the music coming from the church. That would have been their first experience of black music.

JW: Didn’t Willie Dixon successfully sue Led Zeppelin over Whole Lotta Love, proving they had plagiarised his song You Need Love?

MC: That’s right. They ended up settling out of court. Willie is a complex case. He played upright bass, wrote songs, arranged songs, and produced. There wasn’t much that Willie didn’t do around Chess. His first real job at the label was to round up the musicians for sessions. These guys weren’t easy to get hold of. They had many different women so you never knew where they were staying. None of them had telephones. They were hard to track down. But Willie could always find out where they were. He was like a private detective. He was also the most prolific songwriter we had. Those who didn’t like him would call him a song-taker. He’d hear a few lines from somewhere, add his own words and put his name to the song. In the blues business there’s so many people who’ll claim they were cheated out of royalties or that someone stole their songs. But you never really find out what went down in the back rooms. Willie is depicted as someone who was unhappy with his treatment at Chess but that’s not true. Willie was one of the family. His problems with copyright came after Chess was sold. Eventually he got all his songs back.

JW: One of the most famous stories told about Chess is Keith Richards’ tale about turning up at the studio in 1964 to record The Rolling Stones’ second album only to find Muddy Waters painting the ceiling. It’s not true, is it?

MC: No truth in it at all. But Keith maintains to this day that it actually happened. I’ve laughed in his face many times as he’s insisted he saw Muddy up a ladder with a paint brush in hand. I guess people want to believe that it’s true. It says something about how unfashionable the blues had become at that time. By ’64 nobody really wanted to know. White people had never bought blues records. The audience had always been black. A new generation of black people looked down on the blues. They saw it as slavery music. Instead they were listening to Motown and Stax. It was bands like The Stones and The Yardbirds who introduced the blues to a white market. Of course Chess wasn’t just about the blues. We did jazz, doo wop, rock’n’roll, even comedy. In the 60s we branched out into soul.

Click here to read part 2 of the interview.

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