Thursday, 27 October 2011
MONKEY USA PART 2: CHESS RECORDS, CHICAGO, ILLINIOS
In his autobiography, Keith Richards calls 2120 South Michigan Avenue hallowed ground. He and other Stones love telling how when they arrived in June ’64 to record in the footsteps of their idols, Buddy Guy was there to greet them, Willie Dixon too, Muddy Waters – they claim – was painting the ceiling and helped lug their gear out of the van and up the stairs into the studio. Etta James was no doubt fixing them up something in the kitchen.
Since 1990 the site of Chess Records has been designated an official Chicago landmark, and since 1993 home to the Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation. When we turn up around midday we weren’t afforded such a welcome. The glass front revelled little of what’s inside and the place looked empty, so we rang the bell. After a while a man languidly comes to the door. I worry we’ve got him out of bed. His name turns out to be Kevin although we didn’t know that at the time. Didn’t know who or what he was. He picks the post off the floor and asks “you here for the tour?” Yeah, is that alright?
He leads us into a room with a desk and some mugs and t-shirts on display. It would stretch things to call it a gift shop. “You musicians?” he asks. Now, whenever I’m asked this, I always take it as a compliment but it’s not really is it? In my head all musicians look like The Action in ’66, The Stones in Green Park, the house bands of Motown and Stax, the dudes on Blue Note sleeves, where in reality, most are lucky to play a regular pub gig and inevitably wear a faded tour t-shirt and jeans that don't fit properly. “No, but I DJ in London and play old rhythm and blues records including, of course, loads of Chess stuff”. This was the second night in a row I’d thrown in the DJ line and felt myself squirm with uneasy self-consciousness saying it, but in my defence it was to (a) demonstrate we knew why we were here and (b) hope to engage Kevin in some conversation. It didn’t work. He said something about costing us $10 each and watching a video. We paid up.
He led us upstairs to a room filled with stackable plastic chairs and sat us in front of a big television and put a well-worn VHS cassette into the video player. “You watch this and when it’s finished I’ll come back and answer any questions.” With that he was gone. Looking around it was apparent we were in what was once the main recording studio of Chess. There wasn’t much beyond the white pegboard walls to give this impression but the big control room window in front of us gave it away. The video whirred into action and started to play a documentary called Sweet Home Chicago. It told of the blues, Chicago and Chess. It was probably made in the early 90s and was all right. It set the scene. But it went on. And on. We had no idea when it would end. Maybe it was a full 90 minute feature film? It was like watching BBC4 on a Friday night minus the bottle of wine and packet of Twiglets. There we were, sat alone, in the room where hundreds of amazing R&B and soul numbers were wrung from the sweat of incredible musicians; watching the telly.
After about an hour it finished and Kevin popped back. “Any questions?” Er, about the film or Chess in general? “Whatever you want.” I take it this was the studio? It was, and the control room was indeed the other side of the glass, and at the back the two rooms were the audition and rehearsal rooms. How long did Chess use it? Kevin said right up until 1969 when Leonard Chess died. The plaque outside said 1967 when I’ve read they moved to larger premises. Can we have a look around? “Sure, I’ll go back downstairs, come down when you’re ready. Take as many pictures as you want”.
It was difficult to get much sense of what recording in that room was like. It was now simply a rectangular room, high ceiling, with flat walls, and an old piano in the corner. There’s a distinctive echo to Chess records; an open, sparse feel. I tried to hear Little Walter’s harmonica in the walls, feel the stomp of Chuck Berry’s duck walk across the floor. It was difficult. The two back rooms contained some items of memorabilia but nothing much to write about: Dixon’s jacket and hat, KoKo Taylor’s dress, a few guitars, records and various odds and sods. The control room contained a couple of ancient pieces of recording equipment. One, bizarrely, was perched in a metal serving tray on top a wooden cross frame. I’ve no idea whether these were from the original control room or put there for illustrative purposes.
Back downstairs Kevin was sat behind his desk. When asked what the Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation is, he came to life and passionately explained how it was set up at Dixon’s request, to educate blues musicians about the music business, to help those who needed assistance in understanding contracts and the legal implications of what they had signed, to help find work and act as intermediaries when third-parties were looking for performers, to help those in trouble etc. “Musicians are artistic people. They need to be free to create. They can’t do that when dealing with contracts they know nothing about”. It was good to hear. He also admitted that they more or less keep the upstairs open for fans to come along, just so they can say they’ve been before getting on a roll about the standard of blues clubs in the city. We mention we went to Buddy Guy’s club and met him. “What was he like?” I think he’d had a few drinks. Was quite sweary. “That’s Buddy. But what were the chances of that? Back in the day, you could see Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon; they all lived here and played here. In those days you had to reach a certain level before they’d even let you in those clubs. Now they put on anything just for the tourists”.
As we leave the buzzer goes. Kevin lets in a couple of fellas. “You musicians?”
Next stop: Motown.