Arts: Comin' home to the recorded blues

Chess Records took the sound of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker out of the southern ghetto. John Collis celebrates the label's 50th anniversary
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In April 1948, five years after making the trip from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, Muddy Waters went into the recording studio for the second time that month. But whereas the previous session had involved pianist Sunnyland Slim, alto player Alex Atkins and bassist "Big" Crawford, producing high-quality but unsurprising Chicago blues, Muddy returned with Crawford alone. The results, "I Can't Be Satisfied" and "Feel Like Going Home", brought the Delta passion of Robert Johnson and Son House to post-war Chicago, and changed the course of the blues.

The interplay between Waters's whining, rattling, amplified bottleneck guitar and Crawford's stand-up slap bass was electrifying, an urgent, syncopated duel fought out beneath the rich Mississippi drawl of Waters's voice. The record of the two songs established him as the new star of Chicago blues, and gave the year-old record label Aristocrat its first hit, selling some 60,000 copies. When in 1950 the Polish immigrant brothers Leonard and Phil Chess became sole owners of the label, and changed its name to Chess Records, Waters was still on hand to provide another inaugural hit, "Rollin' Stone".

"What the hell's he singing?" a mystified Leonard Chess had allegedly asked when Waters first abandoned the formalities of cityfied blues and gave vent to the vengeful "I Can't Be Satisfied". But by now, as the success of the label grew, he was getting used to it, and the indelible link between the Delta, the breeding ground of southern blues, and Chicago, its northern branch office, was forged as much by Chess as by the Illinois Central railroad linking the two.

Fifty years on from the first Aristocrat release (the somewhat unbluesy and totally forgotten "Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba" by the Sherman Hayes Orchestra), the label is no longer active - it effectively died with Leonard Chess in 1969, and subsequently went through a number of owners. It remains, though, the richest single repository of electric blues, and present owners MCA Records - who recently won a long and bitter dispute with the English- based independent label Charly over the rights to the catalogue - are marking the anniversary with a slew of handsome, digitally-remastered reissues.

During the 1950s, from Muddy Waters to Buddy Guy, most of the biggest names in the blues were either fixtures on the Chess roster or occasional contributors. They included Little Walter, who raised the status of the humble harmonica to that of virtuoso jazz instrument; piano-pounder Memphis Slim; Sonny Boy Williamson, who stole his stage name from an earlier Chicago star, victim of a fatal mugging in 1948; leather-lunged Howlin' Wolf, the most charismatic of the Delta bluesmen and Muddy's lifelong rival as a showman; John Lee Hooker, now, perhaps, the most celebrated blues performer of all time; Elmore James, whose passionate singing and bottleneck guitar kept the spirit of Robert Johnson alive; two of the greatest blues vocalists in Little Milton and Jimmy Witherspoon; and Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, whose 1955 debuts transformed Chicago blues into rock 'n' roll.

Somewhere in the background, and occasionally putting his own name to a record, was the constant presence of Willie Dixon - writer, arranger, producer, musician and the only man with sufficient physical bulk to keep the truculent Howlin' Wolf in line. He once told the tale of hauling the Wolf off stage while on a European tour, pushing him up against a brick wall by his collar and discussing etiquette with him. This elephantine ballet creates an extraordinary picture.

Chess had rivals within the city, of course - Magic Sam and Otis Rush created the "West Side" sound on Cobra, while over on the Vee-Jay label, Jimmy Reed even managed to put a string of his semi-coherent, whisky-fuelled boogies into the national pop charts - but no other label has ever matched it for depth. When, in the early 1960s, the English label Pye began putting out Chess material, its music formed the basis of the "revival" that finally took the blues out of the ghetto.

The Rolling Stones, who took their name from that early Muddy Waters tune, went to Chicago and introduced white audiences there to the unknown heroes living across the tracks. In his home town, Muddy Waters played the down-at-heel Southside dives, while in mid-Sixties Britain he could fill concert halls. A decade earlier, in the garage of his parents' home way out in West Texas, Buddy Holly had cut his R&B teeth on Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley licks, stealing Bo's rhythm for "Not Fade Away" - later, of course, to be covered by the Stones. Holly's version of Berry's double- entendre boast "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man", which gave to rock 'n' roll the verbal dexterity of a Gershwin or Cole Porter, was one of his many posthumous hits. And by that time, every pub guitarist in Britain was busily learning "Johnny B Goode" and "Roll Over Beethoven" note for note - it was one of the rites of rock 'n' roll passage. The link between all this musical activity was the exotic vinyl sporting the Chess logo.

The reputation of Chess rests largely with its blues and R&B, but the reissue programme of 24 individual anthologies and a "best of" double CD is designed to cover all its bases (with the curious exception of doo- wop - the label's hits with such harmony groups as the Moonglows and Lee Andrews and the Hearts have been ignored). The Chess brothers established a jazz label to compete with their lifelong New York rivals Atlantic, originally called Argo but renamed Cadet when the English folk-music imprint Argo took umbrage. The Ramsey Lewis Trio, the most successful group everto sneak jazz into the pop charts, are included, as is Ahmad Jamal, whose album At the Pershing was a huge pop hit. There is a gospel set by the 14-year-old Aretha Franklin, who later defected to Atlantic. The Dells linked the vocal group style of the early Sixties with the "Philadelphia sound" a decade later. And Chess was particularly rich in big-voiced women who created another vital stylistic bridge, between blues and soul - Koko Taylor, Etta James, Sugar Pie Desanto and Fontella Bass.

As well as making forays into the southern states in search of talent, Leonard Chess would also deal with independent record-producers there. The most fruitful relationship was with Sam Phillips of the Memphis label Sun, later a home for Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Sun introduced Howlin' Wolf to Chess, and leased a 1950 Ike Turner single credited to singer Jackie Brenston, "Rocket 88", often mysteriously referred to as "the first rock 'n' roll record". Similar deals introduced the richness of New Orleans R&B to Chicago, notably Clarence "Frogman" Henry's Top Ten hit "But I Do".

The variety and regional diversity of Chess, a Chicago label with its ears tuned to the South, is strikingly illustrated on the 40-track hit anthology The 50th Anniversary Collection, while collectors will appreciate the more rarefied releases - all the plantation recordings made by Muddy Waters for the Library of Congress folk-heritage project in 1941 and 42, for example, and all 47 available Chess masters by Buddy Guy on one double CD. The Chess catalogue has been endlessly recycled over the past 35 years, but this new reissue programme has managed to spring such welcome surprises among the more familiar richesn

John Collis is currently writing the story of Chess Records for Bloomsbury Publishing