Thursday, December 11, 2008

Casual Listening -- Understanding Cadillac Records

Casual Listening


December 12, 2008

Understanding "Cadillac Records"

How big was Chess Records?

Walk into Buddy Guy's Legends blues club in Chicago and make your way to the north wall. You'll find yourself staring at a mural of Mount Rushmore. The faces? Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Little Walter - the heart of the Chess Records lineup.

That big.

"Cadillac Records" is this season's star-studded musical biopic. Unlike "Ray," "Walk the Line" or "Dreamgirls," it's not about a singer or a band. It's about a record label. A couple of Jewish kids in Chicago who sold Blues records to a Black audience and ended up changing the course of music. It's the most important record label you've never heard of.

The Chess Records story revolves around electricity. Nobody knows who first decided to plug in a guitar to play the Blues, but Muddy Waters gets the credit for it. That innovation took what had been folk music from rural Mississippi and made it noisy, brazen, and dangerous. The Chess brothers knew they were onto something, and developed a roster of musicians who could deliver that sound. Little Walter increased the volume by driving his harmonica through an amplifier, and Willie Dixon wrote a raft of indelible songs that shook with his trademark swagger.

Chess came to encompass a who's who of the musicians of the day. Howlin' Wolf is still the best blues voice ever recorded. Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker, who between them put the "Rhythm" in Rhythm & Blues were among the Chess artists who didn't even make it into the movie. Chuck Berry and Etta James came relatively late to Chess, but were arguably the best-known of its artists. Chess records alumni now boast eleven seats in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

That big.

For a new audience of African-American migrants who moved North with the Blues, the sound coming out of Chess studios was electrifying. Remember that up to this point, the Blues was what Count Basie played. Chess was barroom, not ballroom. It was the kind of Blues you could find at the outdoor Maxwell Street Market barking amidst the trinkets and tamale vendors.

An ocean away, another audience discovered Chess. Despite the fact that Blues records were nearly impossible to find in England, a group of young musicians started hunting them. They coveted a music that was muscle and grit, sex and sass. Like the suburban hip hop kids that would make the same Odyssey decades later, the Blues allowed these young Brits to step into a colorful world that became more real to them than their monotonous lives.

You know these kids. Eric Clapton, the Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, and a handful of musicians that would go on to form such divergent bands as Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac. There was also a group who decided to name their band after the Muddy Waters hit "Rollin' Stone." They called one of their first records "2120 S. Michigan," the address of the Chess Records studio.

That big.

Muddy Waters famously sang "The Blues had a baby, and they called it Rock & Roll." Chess Records was the delivery room.

If you want to hear the Chess sound for yourself, check out this collection of the originals that Cadillac Records is based on. If you're really hardcore, the DVD's of the American Folk Blues Festival filmed for German TV has video of these musicians at their best.

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