Marshall Chess, Son of Legendary Blues Label Founder, Details Long Journey to New Supergroup The Chess Project
Like just about everything Marshall Chess discusses during a 45-minute zoom, the story behind his upcoming album New Moves is long, complicated, full of record-business drama and enthusiastically related. “I run at the mouth very easily with stories,” understates the 81-year-old son of the late Leonard Chess, co-founder of Chicago label Chess Records, home of Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James and other pioneering blues artists.
The white-haired Chess dishes on Zoom like a friendly stranger at the bar: His father, Leonard, once made James cry, “to get her to do stuff”; the late guitarist Michael Bloomfield was so anxious about collaborating with Waters on 1969’s Fathers and Sons that a friend had to take him to a hospital for a tranquilizer; Marshall attended college at the University of Denver in the ’60s, taking time off from studying to exercise horses outside of town and shop Chess records to radio stations as a promo man. His more reserved son Jamar – an indie label exec and publisher – interrupts to correct dates and keep the conversation focused on New Moves, the father-and-son album due out this spring by a supergroup of hip-hop and rock ‘n’ roll artists calling themselves The Chess Project.
The tale of New Moves begins in the late 2000s, when Chess and some musician friends who’d worked at hip-hop label Sugar Hill Records in the ’70s and ’80s wanted to make an album of classic blues samples mixed with drum machines and contemporary electronic music. To achieve this, Chess needed permission from publishers to use samples of Wolf and Muddy and the others from his family label – which Leonard and his brother, Phil, had sold to indie label GRT in 1969.
Eventually, Universal Music Group took over Chess’ catalog, and Chess could not convince the major label’s Los Angeles executives to approve the samples — he even tried an end-run, traveling to the U.K. and pulling top international exec Lucian Grainge out of a meeting to give his blessing. (Grainge, of course, went on to take over UMG as its chairman and CEO.) But when the L.A. execs found out, according to Chess, they “squelched” the project; 2008’s U.K.-only album Chess Moves quickly fell out of print and is only available on eBay. “I don’t know if I should say who got mad about it,” Chess recalls. “He’s still there.”(A UMG spokesperson did not reply to requests for comment.)
Over time, Chess and collaborator Keith LeBlanc – the experimental hip-hop drummer who’d been in Sugar Hill’s house band – adjusted their idea. Instead of using the Muddy and Etta samples, they turned the tracks into quasi-covers, modern interpretations of blues songs from the ’50s and ’60s. Chess approached BMG to administer the deal, and they hammered out the details, from the marketing budget to the launch party. “Then,” Chess says, “I collapsed.”
Chess wound up undergoing two spinal surgeries and was recovering on his couch in Phoenicia, N.Y., when the COVID-19 pandemic kicked in, forcing BMG, and all the labels and publishers, to close their offices. All seemed lost for the project. “We were quite disillusioned. We let it go,” LeBlanc, the heart of The Chess Project, says by phone from his home studio in Meriden, Conn. “I took a couple tracks and put some live drums on it, and realized, ‘This sounds really good.’ So I called Marshall, and said, ‘Let’s just do a whole other album using a different slant on it.’”
BMG kindly returned the rights to the album to Chess — for free. New Moves, starring LeBlanc on drums, Skip “Little Axe” McDonald on guitar and longtime Rolling Stones backup singer Bernard Fowler on vocals, will come out sometime this year under a new label, CZYZ Records. (This is a reference to the Chess family’s original name in Poland before Leonard and his brother, Phil, immigrated to Chicago and changed it to something more American. In the zoom, Chess wears a red hat with CZYZ in white letters.) Owned by Marshall and Jamar Chess, CZYZ will retain the album masters, and BMG will oversee the publishing.
New Moves contains no actual Howlin’ Wolf vocals, Muddy Waters guitar solos or Little Walter harp riffs, but LeBlanc’s Chess Project crew surrounded Fowler’s moans and murmurs with blasts of electric guitars and harmonicas so they capture the vibe of what happened so many years ago at Chess in Chicago. The songs aren’t covers, per se, but they show their inspirational source material by copying titles of Chess blues classics: “Nine Below Zero,” “Smokestack Lightning,” “Goin Down Slow.”
Sometimes, Marshall Chess says, he had to summon the spirits of Leonard and Phil Chess to get to the heart of a track. On “Help Me,” he says, “We had trouble getting Bernard to do the vocal — he wouldn’t do it the way Keith wanted it.” So naturally, Chess, who was president of Rolling Stones Records from 1970 to 1978, told Fowler a story: In the ’50s, when Marshall was 16, Leonard Chess enlisted him to supervise a session with a prominent Chess artist while he went to the bank. Leonard’s advice to Marshall? “Tell him, ‘Keep taking another one.’ Otherwise, he’s going to sit around and bulls–t about women. One of those takes will be great.” Years later, Marshall applied this advice to Mick Jagger while the band was recording “Moonlight Mile.” From a remote truck, he repeated to the singer, “Take another one,” until they hit the version used on 1971’s Sticky Fingers. “When [Fowler] heard that Mick listened to me,” Chess recalls, “he immediately did what we wanted.”
Marshall Chess was born into the record business. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doo-wop group the Flamingos played his bar-mitzvah dinner. As a 25-year-old in 1967, he steered the family blues label into the psychedelic counter-culture – starting his own imprint, Cadet Concept, and nudging Waters and Wolf into stretched-out, funky blues with their respective albums Electric Mud and The Howlin’ Wolf Album. Traditionalists hated the albums, and Rolling Stone panned Electric Mud – but the album was a top label seller for years, and wound up inspiring a generation of rappers, including Public Enemy’s Chuck D.
“Marshall brought the youth vision to Chess,” says Robert Gordon, a Memphis blues historian who wrote the definitive Waters biography, 2002’s Can’t Be Satisfied. “It was ahead of its time. I dismissed it upon hearing it, and not until Chuck D turned me onto it did I go back with open ears. It was f–kin’ rockin’, man! It took me 40 years to catch up to Marshall’s vision.”
The elder Chess, as ever, is delighted to play promo man for his latest venture. “High Temperature,” the slow-burning first single from New Moves, is scheduled for release next Friday (May 12), before the album comes out. “I want you to listen to two cuts, ‘Goin Down Slow,’ followed by ‘Mother Earth,’” Chess instructs on the Zoom, referring to tracks inspired by Howlin’ Wolf and Memphis Slim classics that deal with contemplating mortality. “I’m 80 years old, and they’re about dying with a smile. They helped me! Because I’m the epitome of going down slow.”
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