Im Feeling the Blues Right Now: Blues Tourism in the Mississippi Delta (American Made Music Series)

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  1. Works (80)
  2. I'm Feeling the Blues Right Now
  3. American Made Music Series | Awards | LibraryThing
  4. Is the legendary guitarist and singer the last of his kind?

It turns out that the skills associated with trade—understanding products and markets—are far from unrelated to the methods of the scholar.

Are the Chess Brothers utterly unrelated to Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the Paris gallery owner among the first to recognize the importance of Cubism and to buy Picassos? Kahnweiler, a Mannheim-born German Jew, had been groomed for the family stock exchange business. Leonard Chess had just turned forty. He had two children and was living on the South Shore of Chicago. Each new station in his life would be marked by a new house, a new office. Leonard truly became Leonard only at forty. As a young man, he seemed miscast, itchy in the too-tight costume of youth, a man who knows when to shout and when to whisper; who, though balding, never attempts a comb-over; who, though graying, never attempts a dye, and wears bland suits and blah shirts and lets his eyes carry the weight of expression.

On his way to work, you could not pick him out from the crowd of nine-to-fivers. A face in the sea of faces, how could you know he hid among them like Oppenheimer, building a lab to split the atom. Coffee, donut, Sun-Times, galoshes. Leonard was a progressive in a not really progressive town; a Democrat in a city of machine-built Democrats. He might seem old fashioned, a relic of the pre-Kennedy, hat-wearing era, but he was in fact a true modern, a pioneer in a business as new as the Internet is today. In this, he followed a long tradition of Jews who sought their fortunes in the brand new thing, often in that place where show biz intersects with technology.

It was the age of the Jewish photographer, the Jewish filmmaker. Such men placed their faith in progress because what did they have to be nostalgic for, because show me an invention and I will show you a way to get rich, because a new technology is inevitably followed by a new industry that has not had time to build the barriers to keep out men like Leonard Chess. For Leonard, this was an era of long days, the sort well known to our fathers and grandfathers, but not to us.

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He would spend seven, eight hours in the office, or in the studio, or hustling distributors, then head to the Macomba, which he had mostly left for his brother Phil to run. The life of the club owner was something Leonard left behind, the noise and violence drifting into lore. In , Charles Aron, co-owner of Aristocrat, divorced his wife, Evelyn.

Works (80)

Leonard now had a stake in the gold mine. He was an owner. A capitalist. Up to this point, he had flown on the prevailing winds, producing flat jazzed-up Blues that sounded like everything else; records that came and went like wind across the sand. He was no genius. He did not dazzle into the big score. He instead had to work for it, fake it, steal it, copy it, shuffle and fight. He was smart and tough in the way of the hard worker, the long-distance runner, the gambler who wins on stamina.

In business, and probably in art too, such men have the advantage over the genus, who depends on the great big nothing, a flukey, unpredictable freak. Leonard could not spot a song, something he was criticized and mocked for, but he had a skill far more important: he could spot the man who could spot the song, woo him and hire him, and then when the gift goes away, dump him like an aging wife.

It was not music Leonard had a talent for—it was people.


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A bloodsucking skill because, if done right, it means, in a business sense, never growing old. Willie Dixon would serve as the key man in the glory years, but in the beginning it was Sammy Goldberg. And it was Goldberg, one day when a musician did not turn up for a session, remembered the kid he had met in the union hall: Muddy Waters. My father wanted to make what black people wanted to buy.

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I'm Feeling the Blues Right Now

We were not out to make great music. We were out to make hits, to make money. When the call came, Muddy was out on the truck—he had a job delivering Venetian blinds. The relative who took the message got in his car and raced around the city looking for Muddy, another moment so crucially cinematic you imagine it in storyboard: jagged lines, narrow streets, the big truck tearing around a corner.

When Muddy got the message, he ran to a phone and called his boss. He said his cousin had been found dead in an alley and he had to rush home. This lie is the original sin on which Muddy built his career—OK, not a deal with the Devil, but still pretty graphic and ghetto-y in a way meant to titillate the white boss. So here comes Muddy, and this guy walks in like John Wayne, a soldier back from the war, a farmer in the rain, drenched but not about to hurry. His first recordings were a classic case of trying too hard, copying the Bluebird beat. In the second or third session, after he had burned up considerable tape and money, and the patience of Leonard was wearing thin—and as a Negro from the South Muddy could always sense the loss of patience in a white man—he figured, Fuck it, if I fail at least I will fail as myself, and launched into some old Delta Blues.

This is the moment the needle, after popping and hissing, falls into the groove and the music blasts away—a song that will play for the next thirty years. When the record was cut, Leonard kept it on the shelf. Muddy came in week after week to ask when it would hit the stores. If Leonard was your boyfriend, you would call him commitment-phobic: he recorded and recorded but seemed never to release.

He blanched when it came to plunge, invest the money, press, and distribute. A record would spend years in larval form as an acetate, the big waxy master from which copies were made. For every four songs recorded, maybe one was put into production. To suspicious artists like Bo Diddley or Jimmy Rogers, it seemed a form of control, with the songs held as hostages. Leonard said he was in fact protecting his investment, guarding the reputation of his artists by only releasing quality—an assertion scoffed at until Leonard died and many of those shelf-bound originals were released.

I made lots of stuff. He tended to rely on oracles. The record was rushed into production. But these songs by Muddy—no one had ever made commercial records like this. It was music from the underclass, the language of rent parties and cotton fields.

American Made Music Series | Awards | LibraryThing

Who the fuck is going to buy that? In the end, it was not Leonard who had the guts to press and release—it was Evelyn Aron. She was in the business less for the money than for the connection to the real, and these songs were real. It was Evelyn who pushed Leonard to release that first record by Muddy. The passage of time can diminish or enhance a song, or change it into something else. Songs that, on first release, were good but probably not mysterious, like early George Jones or Johnny Cash, are remade by time into hints of a vanished America, spooky in the way of old photographs.

Time has made them into background noise, like a ragtime tune used in a documentary about the Jazz Age, so you must really work to hear them as they sounded in those first years, the novelty and charge and sex and dirt of them. This is the part of the story where I am supposed to say this record, which the boss did not want to release, a record without precedent, made by a mostly illiterate black man Muddy could sign his name who, until a few years before, lived in a shack on the edge of a cotton field, became a surprise, runaway hit—and so it did!

On the morning of its release, when Muddy walked to Maxwell Street to buy a coy, he was told, because the record was selling so fast, customers were allowed only two copies. Muddy bought two and sent his wife back for two more. There was no radio, no advertising, no nothing.

It was word of mouth. Leonard had stumbled upon a vast reserve: over a hundred thousand blacks from Mississippi who craved their own music. For everyone else, it was a change in the weather, an appearance of the real, Brando mumbling in a movie. It was like that commercial: she told two friends, and she told two friends, and so on, and so on.

Mississippi Delta: Explore Blues Music and More in Tunica, Indianola, Greenville and Greenwood

The record sold out by the end of the first day. Leonard pressed thousands more. He did not analyze this success or take it apart—he simply did what good merchants do: played out the string, not caring why it worked, just glad that it did. He stayed with it until it redefined him: switched the label from sophisticated Blues to a down-home sound. Leonard was now the impresario of Delta Blues, music sold to the poorest people in the city. It reached top twenty in Billboard. For Muddy, it was a strange sensation.

Is the legendary guitarist and singer the last of his kind?

As if he had cast off an image that had gone on to live a life of its own. What did it have to do with him?


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Late one night, he was driving alone through the city in his new convertible, the streets shut down and the windows dark and the dark towers like a distant line of hills, and that warm wind that blows all summer, and he heard a sound so forlorn and familiar he pulled over and sat for a long moment listening before he realized it was his own voice, his own song, floating down from the dark apartments above.