Remembering Sam Phillips … and alligator shoes!

Louis Menand reviews the new book “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll” by Peter Guralnick.

In the early days, many of Phillips’ Memphis recordings were issued on the Chess labels for national distribution.

The pop sound in 1950 was smooth and harmonic. Phillips preferred imperfection. It made the music sound alive and authentic. Word got around, and musicians no one else would record started turning up at the Memphis Recording Service. Phillips got them to believe in him by getting them to believe in themselves.

To have the recordings pressed and distributed, he relied on small independent labels like Modern Records, in Los Angeles, and Chess, in Chicago. But he found the men who ran those outfits untrustworthy—he felt that they were always trying to poach his artists or cheat him on royalties—and so, in 1952, he started up his own label, Sun Records.

Not all recording sessions went smoothly for the new entrepreneur.

One of the first in 1950 was “the singing black boy”, a Memphis DJ, who, wisely, decided to call himself BB King on record. A year or so later, Phillips was recording teenage pianist Ike Turner and his band. They were crestfallen that their guitar amplifier had been dropped and damaged. Phillips was nonplussed. He stuffed it with lots of brown paper and told them to play. It’ll sound like another sax, he told them, “it would sound different”. The result, “Rocket 88” with its driving horns and fuzz-tone guitar, is now hailed by many as the first true rock’n’roll record.

As news of his studio spread, more artists were attracted to record for Phillips.

… Chester Burnett, … better known as Howlin’ Wolf, who would make the biggest impression on Phillips. With a voice, says Guralnick, that “mixed the roughest elements of the Delta blues… with its most graceful modulations” he cut through the studio atmosphere “with a sandpaper rasp” and an “almost overwhelming ferocity”. Phillips was more than impressed. He was overwhelmed. His music, he would later famously say, was where “the soul of a man never dies”.

It appears Chess had a few tricks up their sleeve as they built their record company.

Leonard Chess, of Chess Records, used to have a trunk full of alligator shoes when he drove around visiting local d.j.s. He’d ask for their shoe size and gift them a pair.)

Phillips liked experimenting with music styles and preferred the unconventional both in terms of the music he was recording and the way he was recording it. His techniques marked his recordings instantly recognizable. Just a few years after starting his record label in the early 1950s, and by harnessing the marketing power of the growing radio and television industries, his Sun Recordings were having impacts elsewhere.

African-American performers began to benefit from the popularity of the new sound. In May, 1955, Chuck Berry recorded “Maybellene” for Chess Records; Chess rushed the record to Alan Freed, in New York, and it went to No. 1 on the R. & B. chart and No. 5 on the pop chart. Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” was released a few months later.

Published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

The Stacks: How Leonard Chess Helped Make Muddy Waters


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.”

Chess Records lives again!


The CD Cover | tc418

The Chess label trademark has reappeared on a new CD featuring rock musicians , “Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home”. Recorded in a week with producer Dave Eringa and Johnson’s touring band, its 11 tracks include 10 Johnson compositions.

“Going Back Home” is not going to win awards for innovation, but it’s feisty fun and a rousing testament to a distinctive figure in British rock history, writes Jill Lawless on The Jackson Sun.

James Cotton interviewed

James Cotton | wikipedia | tc102

Like most of the musicians who launched national careers from the Sun Records studio in Memphis, James Cotton was well seasoned by the time he arrived. Later a Chicago fixture, Cotton spent his boyhood in the 1940s living and working with bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson. Later Muddy Waters came through Memphis. Harp players Junior Wells and Little Walter had left Waters’ band, so he hunted down Cotton. “I didn’t believe it was him,” Cotton said of Waters’ initial overture. “That seat he had to fill of Little Walter’s was a hot seat.”

That night’s Muddy gig on Beale Street led to Cotton following the band back to Chicago, where he became a fixture in the burgeoning blues community — and learned how to play for an urban crowd. “Coming from the South, we were all playing the blues, you know,” he said. “But Chicago blues was more slick, I should say, more smooth. They took all the bumps out of the road, smoothed it out. It wasn’t country blues. It was big-city blues.”

The original article in the Chicago Sun Times is no longer available.

Remembering Muddy Waters


Muddy Waters | Rex Features | tc086

Martin Chilton remembers Muddy Waters for the Daily Telegraph, on the occasion of Muddy Waters’ centenary.

“Born McKinley Morganfield, he earned the nickname ‘Muddy’ from his love of playing in the Deer Creek mud along the Mississippi River as a child. It was a name given to him by his grandmother, Della Grant, who raised him after his mother died shortly following his birth.

“His tale of a tough plantation upbringing is well known but it was heartening to know that even late in life he relished thinking about the early days of learning to play blues and performing for hardworking sharecroppers at Saturday night fish fries. Little did they know they were watching a man who would change the face of music and bring the Delta blues to Chicago.”

Daily Telegraph

%d bloggers like this: