Cover image for Spinning blues into gold : the Chess brothers and the legendary Chess Records
Spinning blues into gold : the Chess brothers and the legendary Chess Records
Cohodas, Nadine.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Physical Description:
viii, 358 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Corporate Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
ML405 .C64 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
ML405 .C64 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks-Non circulating

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Muddy Waters. Howlin' Wolf. Chuck Berry. Etta James. Bo Diddley.

The greatest artists who sang the blues made their mark with Leonard and Phil Chess, whose Chess Records was synonymous with the sound that swept up from the south, embraced Chicago and spread out into mid-century America. Spinning Blues into Gold is the impeccably researched story of the men behind the music and the remarkable company they created. Chess Records-and later Checkers, Argo and Cadet-was built by Polish immigrant Jews, brothers who saw the blues as a unique business opportunity. From their first ventures, a liquor store and then a nightclub, they promoted live entertainment. And parlayed that into the first pressings sold out of car trunks on long junkets through the midsection of the country, ultimately expanding their empire to include influential radio stations. The story of the Chess brothers is a very American story of commerce in the service of culture. Long on chutzpah, Leonard and Phil went far beyond their childhoods as the sons of a scrap-metal dealer. They changed what America listened to; the artists they promoted planted the seeds of rock 'n' roll and are still influencing music today.

The story of the Chess brothers and the music they made captures the rich and volatile mix of race, Jews and music. Cohodas takes us deep into the world of independent record producers, sometimes abrasive and always aggressive men striving to succeed. Leonard and Phil worked hand-in-glove with disenfranchised black artists, the intermittent charges of exploitation balanced by the reality of a common purpose that brought them fame. From beginning to end, the lives of the Chesses were entwined with those of the artists socially, financially and creatively.

Author Notes

Nading Cohodas is also the author of Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change and The Band Played Dixie: Race and Liberal Conscience at Ole Miss

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Polish Jewish immigrants who moved to Chicago in 1928, Leonard and Phil Chess founded an independent record company that produced classics by rock and roll pioneers, along with jazz, soul and gospel artists. An engaging stroll down memory lane combining meticulous scholarship with indelible portraits of musical greats, this history of Chess Records, founded in 1950, and its permutations (Checkers, Argo, etc.) traces the genesis of hits including Chuck Berry's "Rock 'n Roll Music," Etta James's "At Last," the Monotones' "The Book of Love" and Fontella Bass's "Rescue Me." Cohodas (The Band Played Dixie) sensitively explores the complicated dynamic between the Jews who dominated the early "indie" music business and the black performing artists whose music they produced. Although allegations of exploitation and underpayment of royalties led to lawsuits against the Chess brothers in the 1970s, Cohodas stresses the large common ground between Jews and blacks. Leonard's Macomba Lounge, the club he opened in Chicago in 1946, became a magnet of African-American nightlife. His radio station, WVON (Voice of the Negro), was an integral part of Chicago's black community in the 1960s. While long stretches of this book are a workmanlike chronicle of business dealings, Cohodas vibrantly tracks the crossover of R&B to the pop charts, and she dispels many myths and false legends surrounding the Chess brothers, e.g., Keith Richards's fabricated story that he saw downtrodden blues legends Muddy Waters on a ladder painting the Chess studio's ceiling. 16-page photo insert. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Author of studies of race and politics in the South, Cohodas has written a detailed history of the record company created by Polish-born Leonard and Phil Chess, who moved to Chicago in 1928. Early attracted to the music business, the brothers opened Chess Records in the late 1940s, specializing in rhythm and blues. Muddy Waters, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry personified the Chess sound, although the company also had white performers. Leonard was the driving force as Chess became a significant independent by the 1960s; he sold the company in 1968 and died soon after. Although the author includes little discussion of the broader musical forces at play, she grounds her study in the rich details of both the musical and business sides of Chess, thus adding to broader discussions in Robert Pruter's Doowop: The Chicago Scene (CH, Nov'96) and Chicago Soul (1992). This book complements Charlie Gillett's study of Atlantic Records, Making Tracks (CH, Jan'75), and Colin Escott's Good Rockin' Tonight (1991) on Sun. Helpful illustrations, notes, but slight discography. Highly recommended, this book provides an understanding of independent record labels, black music, and the role of Jewish businessmen in the industry. All academic and public collections. R. D. Cohen; Indiana University Northwest

Booklist Review

Looking for a corporate history with a backbeat? Try the saga of the brothers Chess, Phil and Leonard, told before but not as fully referenced as Cohodas' take on it. Cohodas presents the Chess story as an ethnic stew, in terms of interactions between the brothers and the musicians who recorded for them, and also in terms of those who bought the records. And the Chesses were involved in more than recording. In 1959 Leonard managed to acquire a radio station, and soon the brothers owned several small stations, including the Chicago-area outlet they dubbed WVON, for Voice of the Negro. Cohodas tells how the two old-worldish, Jewish businessmen became giants of the "race" record industry and providers of race-conscious broadcasting patiently, enticingly, and fully. Anyone who finds a Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, or Willie Dixon beat irresistible will find Cohodas' book pretty fascinating, and that includes many fans of the Rolling Stones and the other blue-eyed blues bands inspired by the music the Chesses recorded. --Mike Tribby

Library Journal Review

As boys in the 1920s, Leonard and Phil Chess left Poland and immigrated to the Jewish section of Chicago. After an unhappy apprenticeship in their father's junk business, the Chess brothers began operating the Macomba Lounge, which catered to rural blacks recently arrived in the city. Grasping the profitability of the music business, they eventually formed Chess Records, which would reshape American popular music with its roster of blues icons Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Willie Dixon and rock'n'roll pioneers Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. The many artists who regarded the brothers more as friends than bosses belie myths about the mistreatment of musicians and the withholding of royalties. Much more in-depth than John Collis's The Story of Chess Records (LJ 2/15/99), this provides a bibliography that includes citations from Chess recording sessions and the private papers of Chess family members. An essential purchase for any serious popular music collection; Cohodas also wrote The Band Played Dixie.--Dan Bogey, Clearfield Cty. P.L. Federation, Curwensville, PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Leonard and Phil made little distinction between office and home. Family was business and vice versa. So it was not surprising that Marshall's bar mitzvah on April 17, 1955, became something more than a traditional worship service. A centuries old ritual combined with present day business, the event became an R&B convention, Hebrew chants mixed in with blues. Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records and disc jockey Alan Freed and his wife came from New York. Randy Woods of Randy's Record shop and Dot Records came from Gallatin, Tennessee; disc jockey Zenas Sears came from Atlanta, WLAC's Gene Nobles came from Nashville, Record presser Buster Williams and his wife came from Memphis, and so did a host of Chicago area music makers including prominent black disk jockeys Sam Evans, Al Benson and McKie Fitzhugh, and some of the Chess musicians. It was one of the few times blacks came to a worship service at Agudath Achem, the family's synagogue. Excerpted from Spinning Blues into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records by Nadine Cohodas All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

1. The Men on the Chess Boardp. 1
2. Coming to Chicagop. 5
3. The Macomba Loungep. 22
4. Immigrant to Aristocratp. 33
5. Memphis Connectionsp. 51
6. Checkers, Charts, and Copyrightsp. 66
7. Blues with a Feelingp. 81
8. The Beat has Got to Movep. 101
9. Money in the Songp. 122
10. 2120 South Michiganp. 136
11. All that Jazzp. 151
12. Play for Payp. 174
13. Trust in Mep. 183
14. Branching Outp. 194
15. Voice of the Negrop. 212
16. The Soul of a Manp. 225
17. Don't Mess up a Good Thingp. 245
18. 320 East 21st Streetp. 267
19. Final Tracksp. 280
Epilogue: Lawsuits and Legaciesp. 302
Discographyp. 315
Notesp. 318
Bibliographyp. 336
Acknowledgmentsp. 341
Indexp. 345