When Men On The Chess Board...

When Men On The Chess Board...
Marshall Chess, Joe Bihari and author John Broven host forum at the Ponderosa Stomp Conference in t

By Rachel Lee
June 2009

A couple of months ago, sometime after the movie Cadillac Records, based on Chicagoís Chess Records, came and left the theaters, a friend gave me a copy of the film on DVD from a industry insider.

I was eager to see a film about my favorite blues label with Adrien Brody and Mos Def, who are among my favorite actors.

After watching the film I was disappointed. What point was the movie was trying to make? Why was only Leonard Chess mentioned and not Phil Chess? Later when I was in Weirdo Records and saw a copy of Nadine Cohodasí book on Chess records “Spinning Blues into Gold,” I picked it up immediately to answer some of my nagging questions.

I started to read it before my trip to New Orleans, but put it down halfway thinking I had better brush up on Swamp Pop and R&B instead - for the Ponderosa Stomp festival. For those not familiar with the Ponderosa Stomp, it is a two- to- three-day festival held in New Orleans every year, and dedicated to the unsung heroes of rock, blues and soul, often with many local New Orleans performers.

Though I knew the music lineup beforehand, I found out only the day I got there that Marshall Chess, former president of Chess records, founder of Rolling Stones records, and executive music producer of Cadillac Records was going to be giving a conference that afternoon as part of the festival.

Marshall was jovial and all smiles during the conference. First he spoke about being on the road down south with his father Leonard in the late 50s and early 60s, and the attitudes they encountered.

“We got called nigger lover more times than you can imagine” he said.

Joe Bihari (of Modern records) told his own stories of the resistance he faced selling and distributing records by black artists down south. They also talked about being friendly rivals over a few Sam Phillips discoveries such as Ike Turner and Howling Wolf.

In those times they would do it all - from recording to publishing to distribution - and there was a camaraderie among the record men. Marshall made no bones about payola and said it was indeed an everyday part of business at the time. He also said that the IRS never busted Chess because they always itemized their payola expenses in case of audits.

Nadine Cohodas had credited Marshall as being a major source of information for her book, and later when talking about the Chess legacy, Marshall referred to the book as “well researched,” citing the bookís listing of his familyís immigration documents from Poland.

Marshall also had some advice for future Chess historians since Leonard Chess and many of the principal blues artists are no longer alive.

“Try to get at least three people to verify a statement,” he said.

Much of the controversy has to do with accusations that Chess didnít pay the artists the royalties they were due. Countering those charges were claims that many of the artists borrowed too much money against future earnings. While Marshall didnít pan Cadillac Records completely, he did say that the omission of Phil Chess from the movie was hurtful to Phil, and that Phil was integral to the success of Chess.

Before Marshall introduced a little known 1996 documentary called The Legend of Bo Diddley showing live Bo Diddley footage from that time, he took a few last questions.

No one asked Marshall about the filmís portrayal of his Dadís relationship with Etta James. One person, however, did ask Marshall if he himself got any advice about women from any of the great bluesmen. Marshall didnít hesitate. Without going into details, he said Muddy Waters gave him the best advice whereas Howling Wolf suggested he: “get a wino and go out back”.

Marshall Chess has been on Sirius satellite radioís blues channel since 2007 hosting the weekly Chess Records Hour featuring the music and history of Chess Records.

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