The Chess Brothers and the Macomba Lounge

Let’s start at the end of the story: in 1950, the Macomba Lounge burned to the ground, taking nobody but the building proper with it. In a single night, the Chess Brothers realized that they were given an opportunity in disguise. With their business acumen in the recording industry and their stake in Aristocrat Records, they took the insurance money that came from what was settled in their lounge and started Chess Records. The rest, as they say, is history.

Let’s work backwards from the burning rumble of what was left of the Macomba Lounge. Let the fire that tore the place done from the roof to the floor, while “patrons and musicians were scrambling to get out,” reverse its handiwork and let time turn back to the time when the Macomba Lounge was first under the hands of the Chess Brothers in 1946 (Cohodas 907). What happened in that little club that helped the brothers get their start in the music industry? What was the environment that allowed them to know exactly what his customers wanted in the business? And more importantly, what was so important about that club

To anyone as business savvy as Leonard Chess, the Macomba Lounge was one of a three-pronged business strategy that the brothers Chess operated before the club burned down: “Leonard operated three discrete entities between 1942 and 1950, none of them simultaneously: Cut-Rate Liquor, 708 Liquor Store, and then the Macomba Lounge” (Cohodas 280-281). Situated right in one of Chicago’s burgeoning African-American neighbourhoods, the Chess brothers started to learn about the music and culture that would help in their dealings in the music industry in the coming years. More than that, it also became a place where they could test out the talents of the young musicians that would darken their doorsteps.

In the Macomba Lounge, the music played and the people partied:

“Everybody was out every night having a good time. It was a world of pimps, hookers, maids, chauffeurs, good-time whites, factory workers, white collar workers, musicians, entertainers, bartenders, waiters— everybody hanging out together… when a little money went a long way and there was no tomorrow” (Cohodas 399-401).

It was in this type of environment did the Lounge thrive, as Leo Chess made sure that people came for the liquor, stayed for the entertainment, but came back for the musicians who constantly took over the bandstand. The likes of Tom Archia, tenor saxophonist, would be enough to attract other talent to come and play for the lounge proper. Some of the more well-known talents came over and stayed a while, like Ella Fitzgerald or Max Roach, but no one Phil or Leo ever hired. Rather, they began to have a feel for the African-American community by master their vernacular and noting their musical tastes. It’s arguable that the time they spent with the people in the community, be it the middle-class black folk looking for a good time or the junkies looking for another dealer, gave them a second sense of what type of music would sell and what wouldn’t: “The crowds in the Macomba and the popularity of Tom Archia and some of the other musicians were certainly an indication that a market for their music existed,” but it was knowing how to tap into that market that gave Chess records an edge (Cohodas 634-635).

From the ashes of the Macomba Lounge, Chess Records rose like a Phoenix. Combining their knowledge bases from their time in Aristocrat Records and in the Macomba Lounge (and more than a little capital from both), the Chess Brothers became a force to be reckoned with in the music industry.

– Cohodas, Nadine. Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records. NYC, NY: Iconoclassic Books. May 2012. Kindle Edition eBook.