Sex, Songs And The Stones: An Interview With Marshall Chess, Part 2

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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JW: One of the most controversial releases was Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud. Didn’t one reviewer describe it as, “the worst blues album ever made”?

MC: Yeah, and the whole thing was my concept! It was 1968 and I was a part of the whole pot-smoking, free love generation. The music I started getting involved with came directly out of that culture. I’d made an album with the psychedelic soul band, Rotary Connection, and it went on to sell 200,000. Meanwhile Muddy Waters had a problem. He wasn’t selling albums and the blues market was dwindling. So I came up with this concept, to team him up with members of Rotary Connection. It was like a movie director choosing an actor like Marlon Brando to play a certain role. The intention was never to change Muddy’s genre of Delta blues. It was taking the blues to this drug-taking generation that was exploding across America. It was an experiment. Electric Mud was a big success when it was released. It exploded. FM radio loved it, couldn’t stop playing it. We shipped 150,000 in the first month. It was the biggest album Muddy ever had. Then Rolling Stone magazine got round to reviewing it and they said it was the worst blues album ever made. That changed everything. The radio stopped playing it. People stopped buying it. Then Muddy came out and said he never liked it in the first place. But he was pandering to that stupid review. He wasn’t saying what he really felt. A lot of people love that album. The Stones and Led Zep loved it. Chuck D told me it was the album that first inspired him.

After that we did a similar project with Howlin’ Wolf using the same band. He really, really didn’t like the way it came out. In fact he described it as “dog shit”. My idea for the album cover didn’t help matters. Instead of using a photo we just printed a statement which read, “This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it.” Take it from me, saying on the cover that the artist doesn’t like the record is a really stupid idea.

JW: In 1969, Chess was sold to GRT (General Recorded Tape) for $6.5m. Rumours still persist that civil rights groups were pressurising Chess to hire black executives and cede control. Any truth in that?

MC: That might have been a sideline reason to sell up. But it wasn’t the only reason. My father and uncle had already launched a radio station called WVON (Voice Of The Negro) which had become the biggest black station in America. They came up with a plan to sell the record label and radio station to invest in black television. Then, completely unexpectedly, my father died of a heart attack. He was 52. If he’d possessed a crystal ball, he’d never have sold Chess Records. He wasn’t to know how historically important and how valuable that music would become. No-one knew.

Everything unravelled at that point. Not only did I lose my dad but I also lost a fortune. I’d been promised a lot of money from the sale of Chess to start my own label. But my father died without signing his will and I never got the money. The problem with the will meant that 70% of the proceeds from the sale of Chess went in tax. The people who bought Chess had no idea how to run it. They made me president of the label after quite a struggle on my part. But it was never going to work out. These people didn’t know the first thing about music. The first indication of the nightmare to come was that they called me in to discuss forecasts. They expected me to predict the kind of profits the shareholders could expect in the next year. It had never worked like that. To us, it was simply a question of making the next hit record. So they sent me to management school in New York for a week. I hated it. During all my time at Chess it never felt like a job. It was a joy. Suddenly it was a different ball game. For the first time in my life I felt I was at work rather than doing what I enjoyed. It was drudgery. That was a tough time for me. There was a lot of psychological turmoil. I really didn’t know what I was going to do next.

It was taking the blues to this drug-taking generation that was exploding across America. It was an experiment. Electric Mud was a big success when it was released. It exploded. FM radio loved it, couldn’t stop playing it.

JW: Then you bounced back to become president of Rolling Stones Records. How did that come about?

MC: I’d known The Stones from the time they’d come to Chess to record. When they returned for the second time I was running the studio and got to know them. Then, in 1970, I was tipped off that they were about to leave Decca. So I got hold of Mick Jagger’s number and called him up. He invited me round to his house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. It was a slightly bizarre meeting. I sat on the sofa and outlined my idea of running The Stones’ new label and Mick was dancing around the room to Clifton Chenier’s Black Snake Blues. Straight after that I walked up the road to meet Keith Richards. He was sitting at this big psychedelic yellow piano, jamming with Gram Parsons. First thing Keith does is remark how badly dressed I am. In the Chess days we were always sharply dressed because the artists respected that. I always wore a suit and tie, a ring on the little finger. Now I looked like Al Pacino in the Serpico movie – scruffy jeans, t-shirt, long hair. Anyway we shook hands on a deal and I was now the founding president of Rolling Stones Records.

JW: Wasn’t one of your first moves to come up with the idea of the famous lips-and-tongue logo for the band?

MC: The Stones were in Amsterdam. I landed at Rotterdam airport. I was driving along to meet the band and saw a Shell petrol station with the classic yellow logo. It was so beautifully simplistic. I mention this later when I’m sitting around with The Stones, saying that we should come up with a design that is totally recognisable without having the band’s name on it. Out of that conversation came the idea of having the tongue and lips. As label manager it was my job to audition a variety of artists who came up with an extraordinary variety of tongues. As soon as we saw John Pasche’s now famous design, there was no doubt that was the one and we bought it outright.

Straight after that I walked up the road to meet Keith Richards. He was sitting at this big psychedelic yellow piano, jamming with Gram Parsons. First thing Keith does is remark how badly dressed I am.

JW: How long did it take you to penetrate The Stones’ inner circle?

MC: It happened straight away. They accepted me immediately because of my connection with Chess Records. For a time I lived with Keith at Cheyne Walk. I had the servant’s quarters at the top of the house. Keith wasn’t your typical house-mate. He would stay up for three days, then sleep for three days. He always did have a unique physiology. I’d always been a morning person. At Chess, it was a case of start working at 9am, finish at 7pm. It was a very structured life. Working with The Stones played havoc with my body clock. Meetings would start at 11pm, 1am, whenever. Working with The Stones becomes you life. It’s not like a job at all. The only way to survive it was to live it.

JW: On a scale of one to ten, how hedonistic a time were you having?

MC: Oh, it was right up there. To the max. It was at the very start of that whole sex, drugs and rock’n’roll lifestyle. I was the same age as The Stones and fell right in with all that. What was there not to like about any of it? I was in my twenties. My marriage has broken up so I had no responsibilities in that way. I wouldn’t say I was a major womaniser but I definitely knew how to enjoy myself. Like any man I appreciate a pretty woman. On those Stones tours there was a lot of very hot women around the band and a lot of extra ones to go around.

Drugs? Before I joined The Stones I’d smoked marijuana, that was it. Suddenly every drug on the planet was freely available. As soon as we started touring, I found myself with multiple addictions. By the end of the first big tour I was doing everything there was to do. I liked to be high all the time. When you’re living that life you don’t stop for a moment to think that there’s gonna be a long, dark tunnel waiting for you somewhere down the line.

JW: You were executive producer on all The Stones’ albums from 1971’s Sticky Fingers to 1976’s Black And Blue. What did you bring to the studio?

Keith wasn’t your typical house-mate. He would stay up for three days, then sleep for three days. He always did have a unique physiology. I’d always been a morning person.

MC: Attitude. Of course, The Stones already had plenty of that, but I definitely added to it. It was a case of, “Fuck everybody, fuck the label, fuck the cost, because we’re going to make the greatest music and nothing is gonna get in the way of that.” In the seven years with The Stones, I spent more time in the studio than anybody with the exception of Mick and Keith. I’ve always loved recording studios. For me it’s like entering a church or a temple. I love the mood of those places. I love sitting behind that mixing-desk, watching events unfold. I find it completely fascinating.

Also I’d learned so much from watching my dad and uncle work with the Chess musicians. They knew exactly how to push their artists so they got the best out of them. There were times when my father would take over on the drums during Muddy Waters sessions to get the exact sound he wanted. The thing with The Stones was that they were surrounded by people who were completely enamoured of them. So everything was great all the time. But I used to push them and push them some more. Doing Sticky Fingers, Mick would be laying down the vocal on Moolight Mile and I’d be screaming, ““Come on you motherfucker, another one.” Because I thought it could be improved.

JW: What is your defining memory of working on Exile On Main Street in the South of France?

MC: The meals. Soon after we arrived it dawned on everyone that there was fifteen people to feed every day and we needed a chef. In this fabulous mansion there was this great long, baronial table that was half inside the house and half outside but covered, looking out on the bay. To make this work, I had to restore a kitchen in the cellar and all the food was sent up in one of those dumb waiters. Then I had to hire a chef. Every afternoon at five o’clock we all gathered around this long table for our first meal of the day. Most of us had just got out of bed. I’d pass around bowls of joints as we waited for the food to arrive. It was like something from a King Arthur movie, quite a thing for a boy from Chicago.

Then I was summoned to Holland Park in London for a meeting with Prince Rupert Lowenstein who looked after The Stones’ finances. I’m sitting there with him and Keith Richards. After polite preliminaries Rupert got down to business and asked me what the hell I was thinking about spending £200,000 and building a kitchen. All of a sudden, Keith, who is obviously inebriated on something or other, starts flapping his arms around and says, “Whatever Marshall says we’re gonna go with.” And he’s spilling this tea all over Rupert’s £40,000 carpet. The Stones always stood up for me when necessary. They were very loyal in that way.

JW: During the making of Exile did you all sense that the album was going to be a career highlight?

MC: We certainly didn’t think we were working on an album that would be hailed as a masterpiece all these years later. You never hear something that way. Also you never hear it like a member of the public hears it when he drops the needle on the vinyl or pops the CD into the deck. I’m hearing the album from the acoustic versions when they first play the songs, through the tracks and vocals being laid down, to the final mixes. When you’re involved you see it more like a sculptor does, remembering how it evolved from a block of stone. You don’t ever hear it fresh. Besides, there was time to think about posterity. Everything about the making of Exile was so intense. It wasn’t just the South of France. We also worked in England, Jamaica and Germany. As well as the album, I was also working on making a film and setting up a world tour.

They’re businessmen. They’re looking to make money. And we’re talking about a film that shows people taking drugs and having sex. There were people in the film who were OK about being filmed while they were taking drugs and fucking

It was an extraordinary time and involved a lot of extraordinary people. The Stones drew some amazing people into their orbit. Because of that I got to meet some of the greatest artists in the world. I’d find myself in a room talking to Andy Warhol who was strange but interesting. Another time I met Man Ray and Rudolph Nureyev. Mick turned me on to photographer Robert Frank who was hired to do the cover for Exile On Main Street and the film that became Cocksucker Blues.

JW: What was the true story behind Cocksucker Blues not getting a release?

MC: The record company never picked up the option for the film as it was too shocking for them. They’re businessmen. They’re looking to make money. And we’re talking about a film that shows people taking drugs and having sex. There were people in the film who were OK about being filmed while they were taking drugs and fucking. But they wouldn’t sign the release afterwards and that led to all kinds of legal complications. I don’t think The Stones liked the film too much. The whole experience was a lesson to me. I loved Robert Frank and, out of all the people I met through The Stones, he was the biggest influence on me. He was a true beatnik philosopher. But he did not like The Stones. He didn’t like the way they treated people. He disliked the aura around the band. The tour turned him off completely. When he was editing the film I told him that this was a true lesson in realism. The film really showed what it was like to be a huge rock’n’roll band on the road and at their very peak. He caught the excess but he also caught the monotony, the ego trips, the darkness of it all. When I showed the cut to the band in Munich they didn’t like what they were seeing. There were all kinds of problems with it.

JW: How do you remember The Stones on tour?

MC: Those tours were epics. I even got to play on stage with the band a few times. On the 1973 tour of Europe I played trumpet and conga drums on the last three numbers of The Stones’ set, finishing up with Street Fighting Man. I used to be a bugler in the Boy Scouts, then I played in my high school band. My dream was to become a musician but my family discouraged that. They thought it was a stupid life. They had a point. In those days being a musician was a hard road to travel. There were no rock stars. But I regret it to this day because I think I’d have been a great musician. I had it in me.

The Stones were using Stevie Wonder’s horn section to fatten their sound and they insisted I join them on stage. Walking out to play in front of 20,000 people, that was a thrill. I blew so hard my lips were bruised. My abiding memory is Mick showering me with rose petals at the end of the show and 30,000 people focussing their energy on me. It was such an intense feeling.

The Stones didn’t play encores in those days, they just climbed onto the van and sped away while people were still cheering for more. I’ll never forget the feeling of being in that van. It was like being in a mosque or a Buddhist meditation ceremony. Nobody said a word. Everyone was spent. It was a beautiful calm. No wonder bands like The Stones can’t quit touring. They’ll still be on the road when they’re a hundred.

JW: At what stage did your partying get out of hand?

MC: It was on tour that the real partying went on, after the shows. I did seven years of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. I came out of it a better man than when I went in. I made it out. Jimmy Miller and Nicky Hopkins didn’t make it out alive. At the end of my time with The Stones I had major problems with various addictions. At the end of Black And Blue I decided to quit. I woke up in a five star hotel in Montreaux and I felt like shit. I walked into the bathroom, looked in the mirror and I could see the shape I was in – black circles around my eyes, painfully thin, horrible to look at. That night I told Mick I wanted out. It was like telling a girlfriend I’d been dating for eight years that I was leaving because it wasn’t working any more. If I hadn’t got out I wouldn’t have survived. Quite simply, I’d have died. After I left The Stones it was a tough job coping with the change. My phone calls dropped from seventy a day to two a day. I had a million friends who loved me because I was a part of The Stones. Soon as I left, they didn’t want to know. I had to get used to some kind of normality.

JW: How long did it take you to straighten out?

MC: It took me years to get straight, properly straight. You stop taking drugs but it takes forever for your brain to start working normally again. I still smoke marijuana but I think of that as like having a beer. I haven’t touched anything harder since 1978. It’s really difficult to come off all that stuff. It’s like climbing Everest. When you get to the top you get a tremendous sense of well-being.

JW: William Blake argued that the road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom. Was he right?

MC: I’ve never heard that line. That’s saying it better than I ever could. Drugs might not make you wise when you’re doing them. The wisdom comes when you stop.

JW: In 1980 you got involved with Sugar Hill Records. How did that come about?

MC: I found out that Sugar Hill owned the Chess back catalogue. My lawyers said I should go and see this guy called Joe Robinson and offer him $1m for the catalogue. I met with Joe and put the proposal to him. He said, “Man I’d have kissed your white ass if you’d come in six months ago. I’ve just had a global hit with The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight and I’ve just bought two Rolls Royces.” So he was riding the first wave of rap and didn’t need my million dollars. But I did make a deal with him to resurrect those Chess recordings and spent a lot of time at Sugar Hill. I was there when White Lines and The Message were cut. Then I got friendly with Keith Leblanc and together we worked on No Sell Out which sampled the voice of Malcolm X. I felt at home in the world of hip-hop. 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: And since then?

MC: Eighteen years ago I started work on the publishing arm of Chess Records and gradually became involved with the Latin side which was the fastest growing market in the States. Now I’m in charge of more than 25,000 Latin songs.

I’m far from finished. It’s 51 years since I picked up my first pay-check. I’ve stashed enough way to be able to afford to take it a little easier. But I’m waiting for the next great thing to tap me in the shoulder. I believe there’s another major chapter in my life waiting to start.

JW: Looking back over your life, what are you most grateful for?

MC: All the music. And all the luck that came my way. I never really chose the things that happened to me. They just happened. If I’ve learned anything it’s to keep my ears open and trust that something good is going to come along and sweep me up. Most of all I’m grateful that my name is synonymous with Chess Records. I’m in awe of the great music that came from that label. My family’s legacy is a motherfucker. I’m so proud of that.

(The sublime box set A Complete Introduction To Chess is out now on Universal.)

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