The Stacks: How Leonard Chess Helped Make Muddy Waters

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Leonard Chess | Henry Stone Music | tc417

The Daily Beast explores Rich Cohen’s account of how the blues were recorded, packaged, and sold.

“I never during all those Chess years looked upon my father or my uncle or myself as artists,” Marshall Chess told me. “We were businessmen trying to make it. My father wanted to make what black people wanted to buy. We were not out to make great music. We were out to make hits, to make money. And that’s what the artists wanted.”

Mr Chess often infuriated his artists by not releasing their work.

When the record was cut, Leonard kept it on the shelf. Muddy came in week after week to ask when it would hit stores. Leonard said, “Patience” or “Give it time” or “Wait your turn.” Over the years, this became the habit at Chess. If Leonard was your boyfriend, you would call him commitment-phobic: he recorded and recorded but seemed never to release. He blanched when it came time to plunge, invest the money, press, and distribute. A record would spend years in larval form as an acetate, the big waxy master from which copies were made. For every four songs recorded, maybe one was put into production. To suspicious artists like Bo Diddley or Jimmy Rogers, it seemed a form of control, with the songs held as hostages. Leonard said he was in fact protecting his investment, guarding the reputation of his artists by only releasing quality—an assertion scoffed at until Leonard died and many of those shelf-bound originals were released.

Eventually, though, he did release material. Muddy Waters heard some of his own product almost by accident!

Late one night, he was driving alone through the city in his new convertible, the streets shut down and the windows dark and the dark towers like a distant line of hills, and that warm wind that blows all summer, and he heard a sound so forlorn and familiar he pulled over and sat for a long moment listening before he realized it was his own voice, his own song, floating down from the dark apartments above. “And it really scared me,” he said. “I thought I had died.”

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