The Rise of the Chess Brothers

Photo of Leonard ChessPhoto of Phil Chess

Leonard and Phil Chess (pictured above) were two poor, Polish immigrant brothers who lived in Chicago in the 1940s.  They learned how to run a business while they worked in their father’s junkyard.  Though they were of a low class they had the ambition, drive, and work ethic to work their way to the top.

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After Phil and Leonard got out of the junkyard business they opened up a liquor shop called “Cut Rate Liquor”.  People would congregate in the store and discuss the gigs they were playing at and the night clubs that they were going to.  Furthermore, the store was located in a black neighborhood, which got them acquainted with a new type of music called the blues.  While working at this store, the brothers heard a about a club going up for sale called the Macomba Lounge.

Macombaad

The Macomba Lounge was the start of the music business for the Chess brothers.  It was located in the same neighborhood as their liquor store had been and, because it stayed open so late, it tended to attract all sorts of shady people.  Phil was in the armed forces at this time, but when he returned he joined Leonard in running the club.  Unfortunately, in 1950 the club mysteriously burnt down.

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While Phil and Leonard were running the Macomba Lounge they also became involved with work for a record company called Aristocrat Records, owned by Evelyn and Charles Aron.  Leonard steadily bought up the company, and when the couple got a divorce he was finally able to gain possession of the whole organization.  The brand released records until 1951,  when it turned into Chess Records.

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Willie Dixon and the “Hoochie Coochie Man”

Sorry for the late post, dear readers! Times have been busy as of late, and schedules have not been kind to this weary, earthly frame. That said, now that we’re here, let’s talk about one of the more popular licks in Blues history, and the man behind the man who who gave the world that now famous and unmistakably iconic riff: Willie Dixon. Here’s a clip from Cadillac Records where Willie Dixon gave McKinley Morganfield, now Muddy Waters, his most iconic song of his career called (I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man.

Willie Dixon was one smooth operator in the music business, keenly aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each and every musician on the Chess company payroll, using his wide array of musical knowledge and intuition to tailor-fit certain tunes, lyrics, songs and even entire personas to his fellow music makers. As portrayed in the movie, Dixon gave the hook to Muddy Waters to make his own. However, in real life, Dixon gave him the tune in the bathroom of Club Zanzibar where Muddy Waters was performing in 1953. Dixon said that the moment he knew that song, he took off with it:

He went right up on stage that first night and taught the band the little riff I showed him. He did it first shot and, sure enough, the people went wild over it. He was doing that song until the day he died (Inaba 80).

However, as savvy as Dixon was with the people he worked with, he didn’t just write the song for him: “Shirli Dixon[, Wille Dixon’s daughter,] gives this account: “I don’t know if he wrote it for [Muddy Waters], but I think when he wrote it, he wanted somebody like Muddy. He wanted somebody…that could deliver that type of message, because they had the whole look, total package” (Inaba 81). Beneath that mean little riff and the now instantly-recognizable song, Dixon also packed a whole lot of symbolism and mythology, taking from both the African-American folk tradition of the “black badman tales” and the Caribbean and Central American symbols of the hoodoo and voodoo tradition, giving Muddy Waters that air of mysteriousness and promiscuity (Inaba 81). Muddy Waters was already a bit of a heartbreaker in his own right, but the persona Dixon gave him through this song, coupled with Waters’ powerful stage persona and rough singing voice, boosted the effect the music and lyrics created. And his audience knew it too; the majority of the Blues listeners knew what Dixon’s lyrics were alluding to, and the power of what both singer and songwriter was tapping into.

Waters enjoyed that song, and the fame that it gave him, until the day he stopped performing, quickly becoming his favorite, his most recognized and his most brilliant song in his entire career. He may have had hits, but none hit so hard as being the Hoochie Coochie Man of that same song.

References:
– Inaba, Mitsutoshi. Willie Dixon: Preacher of the Blues. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, May 2011. eBook.