To make a good movie requires some simplification, I suppose. If it is the kind of simplification that distills things to the essential - it improves on what is real but possible to overlook; so I won’t quibble with the fact that Phil Chess never exists in “Cadillac Records.” But other quibbling will this way come.
The movie tells a good story and gets at many of the critical elements of the blues in Chicago in America in the 1950s, which is certainly worthy of motion picture treatment. So understand that.
But see that it does so without dealing with the fact that Chess was run by the Chess brothers. The film says ‘so long’ to Phil Chess and focuses on Leonard Chess, who by most accounts was in fact the determined driving force behind Chess Records, the fabled label of Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James and many others. Ok. Need to go further.
Adrien Brody gets the role of Leonard – he plays it well but brings more hair to the role than a literal take on Leonard would call for. Leonard with hair is a bald faced lie. No matter. Again, if the essentials are right, and in this film, they are right, that is of little import. Jeffrey Wright depicts Muddy Waters as if he were the blues Napoleon, and, hey, that is cool – that is who he was! I don’t think he was so much the street musician as shown here, but he probably did some of that.
The chance to see a faithful depiction of the city of Chicago at this time – to get a bit of a picture of the environment within which the great blues art of post wa was made .. this is good stuff. So see the movie. But let me quibble on. I cant help it. Like a driving safety instructor reviewing “Bullit,” I have to pick the nit.
In Mike Rowe’s ‘Chicago Blues’ and other accounts, Sunnyland Slim will be remembered as the man who brought Muddy Waters to the attention of Leonard and Phil Chess at Aristocrat Records in Chicago in 1947. You don’t see that here. In this flick, Leonard finds Muddy playing in his club. In the more likely version, Sunnyland Slim ‘got Muddy off the truck.’ Waters was delivering Venetian blinds when his relatives got Slim’s call for a Chess session. As they did in those days, sidemen could easily get the chance to cut some sides. Muddy Waters was not going to be a sideman very long.
For reasons hard to identify, Sunnyland Slim did not continue to record as a leader for the Chess brothers after his 1947 and 1948 sessions with Waters - after Aristocrat became Chess Records. There were some discussions about pay for sessions, and the Muscian’s Uniton may have been brought in.
Slim’s own sideman work for Chess was sporadic, while it was plentiful on the many smaller independent black owned labels. With writer-arranger Willy Dixon, the Chess brothers established the preeminent blues record company, mostly on the basis of Muddy’s recordings - undertaken in their studio at 2120 South Michigan Blvd. Like Dixon, Slim was at heart more an organizer, or arranger, than sideman.
Clearly this film is somewhat based on Willie Dixon’s memoir, “I am the Blues.” It is narrated here by Cedric, The Entertainer, who has a fair sense of how Dixon might present himself. No doubt, the real Dixon played an absolutely pivotal role in the development of the post-war Chicago blues - but there’s much to be said of the music that he didn’t create .. that is the main crucial sides put out by labels such as Cobra, J.O.B., Chief, VeeJay, and others. For his part, Sunnyland Slim in conversation generally disparaged parts of the Dixon story of the blues, although he was not overly critical of this in the whole.
While they may have been frugal in some respects the Chess brothers lavished time and effort for practice and arrangements, and at 2120 there was honed the tough Chicago sound, polished completely, with stellar production values, and carefully crafted intros and endings. Acoustical tiles on the walls – whew! But more important .. lavished time. They worked to get the best presentation, and didn’t watch the clock ticking. What was going on at the other independents pales in comparison in terms of polish – time was money for them - but not in terms of expressionism. Still, only such as a Bach, a Hank Williams, or a Miles Davis can rest on par with Muddy Waters doing ‘Louisiana Blues’ on Chess in June 1951.
If you listen to the non-Chess brothers blues from Chicago in this era, you find some pretty rough stuff. Brittle. Slipshod. The national labels had left the city. Leonard, as this movie depicts, lavished attention on detail to create the fabulous Chess sound.
Did Chess know what he was after? Who knows? He knew how to pursue it. That is him playing drums on "She Moves Me."
Leonard also exploited his artists, and the Cadillac at the center of the movie is the most vivid example of this; although, as the movie also shows, there are, overall, many favorable things to be said about Mr. Chess’s caring tough love. [His efforts to swear like a bluesman are as hilarious in the film as they are in the handful of Chess session outtakes that show him acting hard.] While he ultimately won important legal battles against Chess, Muddy Waters, as far as I know, did truly have some of the familial compassion toward Chess that is shown in this film.
[Nitpick #12.51: There is a common story that holds that the great Muddy Waters was in a do-rag white-painting the Chess studios at the time the Rolling Stones appeared to record there; that is not how things are depicted in this film. That story may not be true either – in any case, it might not have helped this film, which is a fairy successful music biopic, to have included such a niggling detail.]
The reason I write this is that I started out writing ‘Sunnyland Blues’ because, in a late night kitchen chat, Sunnyland Slim somewhat disgustedly described the Chess brothers’ methods of ensnaring artists. The method had to do with ‘giving’ artists Cadillacs [clearly something at the center of ‘Cadillac Records’] in lieu of true royalties. My friend Paul DeMark and I immediately suggested to Sunnyland that this was something he should write down. His answer was the question: “why don’t you tape it?” And “Sunnyland Blues” ensued.
Slim seemed to hold a respect for Chess’s accomplishments, a sense that he could have been a greater part of it, and a sense that things were not all on the up and up. Greats such as Eddie Boyd or Memphis Slim, who, like Sunnyland, had only brief connections with Chess, could tell similar stories, I would wager. From a long-view historical perspective, what the Chess brothers did is something like a blessing – it could have been more, and it could have been more equitable. But Eisenhower was president, it was what it was! History does not rerun with alterations.
One more time: Check out this flick. To see the blues take this form is a wonder. But remember, someday Beyonce will look like Etta James. Obviously, President and Michelle Obama dancing to "At Last" as beautiful Knowles entoned should have been enough to bring this movie back into circulation. The consipracy never stops.
[This piece includes bits from previous posts. Those are “Liner Notes for a Sunnyland Slim CD - 2003” and “Sunnyland Blues Introduction 1990.”
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