Chess Mate 

Label biography touches on local music history

Label biography touches on local music history

Spinning Blues Into Gold, author Nadine Cohodas’ new book on the rise and fall of Chess Records, ranks as an early candidate for music book of the year. It’s exhaustively researched, expertly written, and riveting from beginning to end. But local readers will find it all the more compelling because Cohodas details the crucial role several Tennesseans played in Chess’ success during the ’50s and ’60s.

Leonard and Phil Chess, Polish-Jewish immigrants who got their start as owners of a liquor store and nightclub, built an empire working alongside African American blues, R&B, and jazz musicians. As Cohodas explains, their efforts were aided through coalitions and partnerships with many people in the broadcasting and distribution industries. These included WLAC disc jockeys ”Hoss“ Allen, Gene Nobles, and John Richbourg; Randy Wood, owner of Randy’s Record shop in Gallatin and also head of Dot Records; and Buster Williams, with whom the brothers established their first pressing plant in Memphis.

Cohodas’ work will no doubt raise some eyebrows because she doesn’t take a clear position on the contention by such former Chess stars as Chuck Berry, Fontella Bass, and Bo Diddley that they were deliberately cheated out of royalties. She presents the label as an operation run almost like a family store by Leonard Chess, pointing out that artists were often advanced money without question; Chess would later recoup these expenditures from earnings generated by artists’ recordings. Cohodas doesn’t dispute that there were times when Leonard Chess didn’t go strictly by the book, and she outlines incidents when writing credits were added for disc jockeys to help get airplay, or other situations where artists didn’t receive publishing or songwriting certification when they should have.

To the author’s credit, she talked extensively to many principals, including several performers and production people who either dismiss or at least clarify charges made by Diddley and Bass about the Chess brothers. The two men were extremely savvy business executives, and they seldom made mistakes—although one whopper they made involved legendary Memphis producer Sam Phillips. The brothers fell out with Phillips over Howlin’ Wolf, whom they eventually lured to Chess. Leonard Chess claimed later that the dispute cost him a shot at Elvis Presley, since Phillips later sold the singer’s contract to RCA. It’s interesting to speculate how history might have changed had Presley done his post-Sun recording at Chess rather than RCA.

Cohodas shatters several myths along the way, including the story that when The Rolling Stones first came to the old Chess studios, they met Muddy Waters painting the building; longtime production head Billy Davis, among others, calls this an outright lie. Some stories that are true include Leonard Chess’ trip to Randy’s Record Shop, when for the first time he saw white fans buying black records. Readers will also learn that it was producer Ralph Bass, rather than Leonard Chess, who decided to cut Etta James’ spectacular LP Etta James Rocks the House at the Modern Era Lounge in Nashville. That LP ranks alongside James Brown’s Live at the Apollo and B.B. King’s Live at the Regal among the greatest live works recorded in the ’60s.

Cohodas’ book clearly and factually tells the Chess story, right up to the company’s downward spiral in 1969, when Leonard Chess decided to sell the company to GRT and then suffered a fatal heart attack shortly afterward. GRT knew nothing about running a multifaceted music company and succeeded only in destroying what had once been a monument to black culture. The undercapitalized All Platinum label, which acquired Chess in the late ’70s, fared no better. MCA, which has owned the Chess masters since 1985, deserves praise for its comprehensive boxed sets and reissues. Now those interested in getting the real Chess story can consult Nadine Cohodas’ outstanding book.

—Ron Wynn

A friend in need

Nashville’s club scene reacted with regret and concern last week when Kim Weber, The Sutler’s former booker and a pivotal figure in the Americana scene, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Weber has been moved from Vanderbilt Hospital to Stallworth Rehabilitation Center, and she is said to be in improving health and good spirits.

Nevertheless, her countless friends both here and across the country are planning a summer-long series of benefits; the first ones are scheduled for June 8-10 at 12th & Porter. The lineup is still unconfirmed, but early reports mention everyone from Steve Earle to Lucinda Williams to Bare Jr.

We’ll pass along more details as they become known. In the meantime, you can send cards and contributions payable to Kim Weber to Tommy Womack, P.O. Box 41682, Nashville, TN 37204. Hang in there, Li’l Kim.

—Jim Ridley

Too much information

So you’ve driven away countless coworkers and dates with your spewing of pop-music trivia, eh? If you know who duetted with his sister-in-law Madonna on a Vic Chesnutt tribute record (it’s Joe Henry), or which U.S. congressman recorded the anti-drug epic ”Pammie’s on a Bummer“ (we miss ya already, Sonny Bono), your stash of useless knowledge is no longer useless. The reason: the fourth annual Rhino Musical Aptitude Test, a worldwide trivia contest being administered for the first time in Nashville next Wednesday, May 17, at the new Tower Records at Opry Mills.

Only fanatics need apply for the RMAT, a grueling 305-question multiple-choice brainbuster that covers every musical facet from lyrics and interview quotes to band names and one-off singles—blues, rock, reggae, jazz, you name it, everything but classical. We pored over the test booklet from last year, and it didn’t take long for us to get stumped—as long as question 5, to be exact. (If you know which Grateful Dead LP has a very young Courtney Love pictured on its back cover, you’re already way ahead of us.)

The good news is that you can use as many reference materials as you can carry. Better news: The first prize for each location, from Music City to Buenos Aires, includes a JVC home-theater system with a DVD/CD player, 100 Rhino CDs, a $100 Tower gift certificate, a one-year subscription to Spin (whee), and more. The winner with the highest U.S. score gets a 32-inch color TV and a slot on Rhino’s new-release mailing list for life—a real prize, given Rhino’s notorious chintziness with promos.

The hour-long test begins 6:30 p.m. at the new Opry Mills Tower Records, 575 Opry Mills Dr.; you can join in on the Internet at 8 p.m. Winners will be notified within 30 days. For more information, check out Rhino’s Web site, Or call 1-888-846-3848.

—Jim Ridley

That '70s show

Among the artists paying tribute to ’70s performer B.W. Stevenson (”My Maria“) at Douglas Corner Monday night is Boomer Castleman, himself a ’70s hit-maker, session guitarist, and guitar innovator. Castleman, a Nashville resident, performed under the name Boomer Clarke in a late-’60s duo called The Lewis and Clarke Expedition with Michael Martin Murphey—on whose blockbuster hit ”Wildfire“ Castleman later played acoustic guitar. With Murphey, he cowrote ”What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round,“ a hit for The Monkees, and ”West Texas Highway,“ which Lyle Lovett covered on his 1998 Step Inside This House CD.

Castleman also developed an early prototype of the palm pedal, a guitar bender that gives an electric guitar the sound of pedal steel. But he may be best known for his 1976 hit ”Judy Mae,“ the lurid tale of a teen whose torrid affair with his stepmom triggers his dad’s suicide. The song was banned from some stations, but you can find it on Rhino’s ’70s compilation Have a Nice Day Vol. 20. For information on what Castleman’s up to these days, check out the current cover story in the free local music mag Rock & Read.

—Jim Ridley

Winning numbers

Jazz fans who haven’t visited Cafe 123 on 12th Avenue South since the restaurant/club began its late-night weekend music series are missing a treat. Last weekend’s quartet performance featuring MTSU professor Don Aliquo on saxophone and Nashville Jazz Institute cofounder Lori Meechem on piano was a rousing one. The musicians tightly blended driving, up-tempo numbers with exuberant treatments of standards and show tunes. In previous weeks, other area notables including saxophonist Jeff Coffin and trumpeter Rod McGaha have also appeared at Cafe 123.

National magazines such as Jazz Times and Jazziz never include clubs like Cafe 123, F. Scott’s, or Bluewind in their yearly club guides. Yet these and other area establishments are presenting jazz far more often than some of the Memphis venues that manage to find their way into these publications. But with the right support, Nashville’s jazz clubs will get the recognition they deserve—and when that happens, it’ll help pave the way for more national touring acts to come through town.

—Ron Wynn


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