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Chess Records Fiftieth Anniversary Collection

Bill Kuhn

By some measures, 1997 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Chess records. In 1947, a pair of Polish immigrant brothers, Phil and Leonard Chess, founded Aristocrat Records–soon to become Chess Records. Based in Chicago, they assembled one of the mightiest collections of talent ever found on one small label. Their earliest stars included Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson. Later, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Rogers, and Little Walter recorded for the label. During the early 1950s, Chess even dominated rival Sun Records, which was used as a contract studio for its more rural acts. Jackie Brenston’s "Rocket 88," widely credited as the first rock and roll song, was recorded for Chess by Sun Records in 1951.

Collectively, the recordings made by Chess records form a very important cornerstone of contemporary popular music. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, and an endless list of other bands covered songs originally recorded by the Chess brothers. Behind the scenes was the guiding hand of Willie Dixon, playing bass, doing A&R work, and writing countless tunes (and getting precious little in return).

At this juncture, Chess is in the unenviable position of having a massive archive that has been released and re-released countless times. Archival releases have been made (the various individual-artist  Chess Boxes), and books documenting famous recording sessions have been written. So what can you do for your silver anniversary? Not much more than reassemble the highlights for yet another release cycle. This time around, there’s a unified graphic approach, informative liner notes, good (if not remarkable) sound, and generous CDs (typically close to an hour long). Even at this late date, I’m sure there are many fans who don’t have anthologies of the major works of these icons, and this series is as good a place to start as any.

Muddy Waters–His Best, 1947-1955,  Chess CHD 9370

From the first sweet, singing, sliding sting of "I Can’t Be Satisfied", Muddy Waters (born McKinley Morganfield) established himself as a unique voice and blues master. Recorded in 1948 with just his acoustic guitar and Ernest Crawford on bass, it remains a vital piece of work after a half-century. This greatest hits set traces Water’s progression from this sparse Mississippi sound to his landmark Chicago blues of only a few years later. Although Willie Dixon is so tightly associated with Chess Records and penned three of the songs appearing here ("I Just Want to Make Love to You," "I’m Ready," and "I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man"), it’s just as remarkable that sixteen of the other seventeen tunes are credited to Morganfield himself. Classics like "Rollin’ and Tumblin’," "Baby Please Don’t Go," "Mannish Boy" and "Honey Bee" are his own.

Virtually all of the songs included on this CD have been covered so many times that it’s easy to forget the originals. That is, until you pop the disc into the drawer and feel it all rushing back. Waters’ early acoustic guitar style slides and bends notes unmercifully but precisely. You always feel he’s in control, while still evoking a real delta blues rawness. As the fine liner notes explain, however, Waters was playing electric blues in Chicago clubs at the same time his records clung to his back-country origins. Eventually the fuller sound of the clubs prevailed, and his mid-1950’s hits were all definitely the work of the big city. Even before teaming up with Dixon, "Baby Please Don’t Go" is a full ensemble work, with Little Walter and Jimmy Rogers trading licks that surely worked the crowds into a frenzy.

The final band represented here featured Waters, Walter, Rogers, Dixon, Otis Spann and various drummers. The tightness of their live sound is really captured on the singles from 1954-1955. Highlights include Little Walter’s spooky harmonica echo in "I Just Want to Make Love to You", Spann’s honky-tonk piano runs in "Young Fashioned Ways", and Waters’ over-miked vocals on "Mannish Boy".

This CD certainly skims the cream off the Muddy Waters catalog–he only broke the record charts three times after these recordings. The production on the CD is nice and clean, but nothing spectacular, and the liner notes are informative, with little anecdotes from various band members. Muddy Waters is a critical component of any American music collection. If you don’t have any of his work yet, this is a fine place to get on board.


Muddy Waters, guitar, vocals; Little Walter and Walter Horton, harmonica; Ernest Crawford and Willie Dixon, bass; Jimmy Rogers, guitar; Elgin Evans, Fred Below and Francis Clay, drums; Otis Spann, piano.

Muddy Waters–Electric Mud,  Chess CHD 9364

In 1968, a bunch of British boys were getting rich off the early blues masters while the masters themselves were broke and their music out of print. Sure, sometimes artists like the Stones would drag an ancient one up on stage to open, but mostly the originals were ignored. Enter Marshall Chess, with the bright idea of pairing Muddy Waters up with a modern psychedelic band to update some of his classics, like "Mannish Boy" and "Hoochie Coochie Man." You know, what those songs really need is a bad Hendrix imitation band to soup them up.  Electric Mud is the sorry result. The best that can be said for it is the 200,000 copies it miraculously sold made some money for Muddy.

Weird touches abound here. The cover art features Waters getting his hair curled, and then holding a guitar while wearing some sort of white monk’s robe (he doesn’t play guitar on the album). There’s an excruciating, plodding remake of "Let’s Spend the Night Together." The liner notes are pretty frank, quoting Muddy’s distaste for the busy, over-processed sound: "Now what the hell do you have a record for if you can’t play it the first time it’s out? I’m sick of that." Listen to the man.


Muddy Waters, vocals; Gene Barge, tenor sax; Phil Upchurch, Roland Faulkner and Pete Cosey, guitars; Charles Stepney, organ; Louse Satterfield, bass; Morris Jennings, drums.

Howlin’ Wolf–His Best,  Chess CHD 9375

This collection covers all of Wolf’s biggest hits, starting with the remarkable 1951 "Moanin’ at Midnight." That tune begins with his legendary throaty wail, joined by Willie Johnson’s thumping guitar and finally by Wolf’s wicked harp. A full 40 seconds of this under-three-minute cut elapse before a feral voice finally cuts through the funk with a semblance of a lyric, but it’s really all about groaning, raging, and moaning about a world of mistreatment. There are few pieces of popular music that so completely embody an emotional state.

Howlin’ Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett, and was a 41-year veteran of the Delta blues circuit by way of Memphis when he recorded that breakout hit for Chess. I enjoyed the earlier pieces of this CD best, when his roots were closest to the surface, but  His Best covers all of the most active portion of his career, up to 1964’s "Killing Floor."

In between there are plenty of high points, pretty evenly divided between his own compositions (including "Killing Floor," "Sitting on Top of the World," "I Asked for Water," and "Smokestack Lightin’") and those of Willie Dixon ("Evil," "Wang Dang Doodle," "Spoonful" and "Back Door Man"). Despite the first class numbers written for him by Dixon, Wolf chafed at being fed someone else’s material. It’s really hard to imagine an era when performers were forced to perform songs and work with people they apparently disliked so much. Nonetheless, Dixon’s admittedly more commercial material is an important component of Wolf’s recorded legacy.

As much as I enjoy each of the individual songs on this CD, I have to admit that playing the disc straight through leaves a somewhat bitter aftertaste. Taken as a whole, you can sense Wolf being turned into a sideshow for commercial purposes. His trademark howling voice is over-emphasized, and then there are the ‘big man’ novelty songs like "Three Hundred Pounds of Joy." By 1960, he was barely playing harmonica anymore, largely reduced to singing Dixon’s compositions.

Like most of the rest of the Chess anniversary series,  His Best features a lively, well-written set of liner notes, and a well-recorded and generous set of what is clearly the classic material from one of our classic blues artists. Wolf was a difficult performer who, like so many others, was ill served by his times. The vitality of the early work practically begs for a sample of his roadhouse material from fifteen years earlier. I’ve never heard of any of it turning up, but it sure would be sweet. As it is, this Chess anthology cherry-picks the best of what he did record, while adding little to his legacy.


Howlin’ Wolf, harmonica, vocals; Willie Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, Otis Smothers, Freddy King and Jimmy Rogers, guitar; Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy, bass; Fred Below, Sam Lay, Willie Steele and Earl Phillips, drums; Ike Turner, Otis Spann, Hosea Lee Kennard, Johnny Jones and Lafeyette Leake, piano.

Chuck Berry–His Best–Volume I,  Chess CHD 9371

Is there any artist of his era with as obvious an influence as Chuck Berry? Despite Elvis’ commercial success, how many artists in the ’70s and ’80s were recording his works in straightforward, non-ironic styles? How many Elvis songs did the Beatles and the Stones cover (or the Beach Boys rip off)? It was Chuck Berry, after all, who was responsible for two of the greatest rock’n’roll quotes: John Lennon’s claim that "If you had to give rock’n’roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry," and George Thorogood’s explanation that he didn’t write more songs because "Chuck Berry wrote them all." And Berry has the one truly out-of-this-world recording, launched beyond the solar system on the space probe Voyager. All from a man who only had one top five hit during his active years (1957’s "Sweet Little Sixteen"). Let’s forget his only number 1 single was 1972’s "My Ding-A-Ling."

Most writing about Berry begins with the unremarkable and unsurprising revelation that while his greatest success was writing songs aimed at a white, teenage, suburban audience, Berry was, in fact, neither white nor teenage nor suburban. Its called writing, folks. What is remarkable after listening to an entire CD of Berry’s music is how diverse it really was. Its easy to get the impression from "Johnny B. Goode," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Carol" and "Rock’n’Roll Music" that he wrote in a single style. But there’s also the chugging boogie of "Maybellene" and "30 Days," and the oddly rollicking racial blues of "Brown Eyed Man." Less fortuitously, "Havana Moon" trots out some Cuban stereotypes, and "Anthony Boy" does the same for Italians.

 His Best neatly summarizes his career, with twenty tunes, most of them instantly recognizable 45 years later. The selection is a bit skimpy, however, with its 52-minute running time almost eighteen minutes shorter than Chess’ 1984 set,  The Great 28, which suffered from cheesy graphics and skimpy liner notes. There are better liner notes here, but they’re still much weaker than the rest of the 50th Anniversary series. Speaking of which, given that Berry is arguably the first rock’n’roll poet, why are his lyrics never featured in the notes? And neither set includes "It Wasn’t Me"–what’s happened to this song?

 His Best also suffers from some poor production. There’s a significant volume surge for the first bars of the guitar solo on "Maybellene," and as the solo finishes there’s a weird dropout into the vocal bridge. Careful listening shows these same defects are present on  The Great 28, but the problems are not nearly as pronounced. On the other hand, that set featured a weird dropout on "Come On," with notes claiming that it appeared on the original recording. The recording levels on  His Best are uniformly high, making it easier to pick out the trademark piano of Johnny Johnson. Still, the band is mixed way back, and even Chuck’s guitar is significantly lower than his weak vocals.

The remarkable thing about listening to a full hour of Chuck Berry is how unrelentingly propulsive the music is. He assaults each song, the notes rushing and tumbling over each other. Careful listening reveals a fair number of mistakes, but the overall impression is still amazing, even now. I still don’t think that Chess has produced a CD that does Berry justice, but even a less than perfect  His Best is a keeper.


Chuck Berry, vocals & guitar; Johnny Johnson, Lafayette Leake, Otis Spann, piano. Willie Dixon, bass; Ebby Harby, Fred Below, drums.

Copyright © 1999 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.