Chess Records Fiftieth Anniversary Collection
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 Recordssoon 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 Brenstons "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, theres 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, Im sure there are many fans who dont have
anthologies of the major works of these icons, and this series is as
good a place to start as any.
Muddy WatersHis Best, 1947-1955,
Chess CHD 9370
From the first sweet, singing, sliding sting of "I
Cant 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 Waters 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," "Im Ready," and "Im Your Hoochie
Coochie Man"), its just as remarkable that sixteen of the
other seventeen tunes are credited to Morganfield himself. Classics
like "Rollin and Tumblin," "Baby Please
Dont 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 its 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 hes 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-1950s hits
were all definitely the work of the big city. Even before teaming up
with Dixon, "Baby Please Dont 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 Walters spooky harmonica echo in "I Just Want
to Make Love to You", Spanns honky-tonk piano runs in
"Young Fashioned Ways", and Waters over-miked vocals on
This CD certainly skims the cream off the Muddy Waters
cataloghe 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 dont 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,
Muddy WatersElectric 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 monks robe (he doesnt play guitar on the album).
Theres an excruciating, plodding remake of "Lets Spend
the Night Together." The liner notes are pretty frank, quoting
Muddys distaste for the busy, over-processed sound: "Now
what the hell do you have a record for if you cant play it the
first time its out? Im sick of that." Listen to the
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 WolfHis Best, Chess CHD 9375
This collection covers all of Wolfs biggest hits,
starting with the remarkable 1951 "Moanin at Midnight."
That tune begins with his legendary throaty wail, joined by Willie
Johnsons thumping guitar and finally by Wolfs 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
its 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 1964s "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 elses
material. Its really hard to imagine an era when performers were
forced to perform songs and work with people they apparently disliked
so much. Nonetheless, Dixons admittedly more commercial material
is an important component of Wolfs 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
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. Ive 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 BerryHis BestVolume 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
rocknroll quotes: John Lennons claim that "If
you had to give rocknroll another name, you might call it
Chuck Berry," and George Thorogoods explanation that he
didnt 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 (1957s
"Sweet Little Sixteen"). Lets forget his only number 1
single was 1972s "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 Berrys music is
how diverse it really was. Its easy to get the impression from
"Johnny B. Goode," "Roll Over Beethoven,"
"Carol" and "RocknRoll Music" that he
wrote in a single style. But theres 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 theyre still much
weaker than the rest of the 50th Anniversary series. Speaking of which,
given that Berry is arguably the first rocknroll poet, why
are his lyrics never featured in the notes? And neither set includes
"It Wasnt Me"whats happened to this song?
His Best also suffers from some poor production.
Theres a significant volume surge for the first bars of the
guitar solo on "Maybellene," and as the solo finishes
theres 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 Chucks guitar is significantly lower than his weak
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 dont 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,