How Leonard Chess Helped Make Muddy Waters
The story of Jewish immigrants and black migrants in Chicago, and how the blues were recorded, packaged, and sold.
Rich Cohen is one of those enviable writers whose intelligence and enthusiasm touches everything he writes about, from Jewish Gangers to the Chicago Bears’ 46-Defense. His family memoir, Sweet and Low, is a tour de force of reporting and memory—tender, curious, and exceptionally funny. One of his most entertaining books is about Chess Records, the legendary Blues record label. It’s the story of Jewish immigrants and black migrants in Chicago, and how the blues were recorded, packaged, and sold. Originally titled Machers and Rockers, and better known as The Record Men: The Chess Brothers and the Birth of Rock & Roll dig into the story of Leonard Chess and Muddy Waters. You’ll only want more and Cohen’s brisk, informal history is a terrific overview of that scene. Course, you’ll also want to make your way post haste over to YouTube to listen to Waters, one of the great musicians this country has ever produced.
Leonard Chess had just turned forty. He had two children and was living on the South Shore of Chicago. Each new station in his life would be marked by a new house, a new office. It’s one of the places where the Jewish character and the American character bleed into one, this rootlessness, this urge to roam: how can you tell you are moving if the scenery doesn’t change?
Leonard truly became Leonard only at forty. As a young man, he seems miscast, itchy in the too-tight costume of youth, a man who craves the authority of middle-age-papa, with his brood and mind made up and voice so much like the rumble of a bass guitar. Leonard fully realized: a man who knows when to shout and when to whisper; who, though balding, never attempts a comb-over; who, though graying, never attempts a dye, and wears bland suits and blah shirts and lets his eyes carry the weight of expression. A man who sits on his desk, folds his arms, lets his head roll back and says, “We take care of this problem now, or it takes care of us later.”