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Best of Chess Records

Without Chess Records, today’s music wouldn’t sound the same. The story of Chess Records was recently depicted in the excellent film, “Cadillac Records” (the DVD was released March 10) and a soundtrack was released featuring the actors’ singing. Taking advantage of a good marketing situation, though, Geffen Records, which now owns the Chess catalogue, released “The Best of Chess Records”, which has the original versions of the songs heard in the film.

Despite the good music, however, the album’s title is a misnomer, and more of an attempt to get people to buy it, as not all tracks are the best Chess had to offer, and a lot of fine Chess artists aren’t on the album (they weren’t in the movie, either). Still, as far as a 16-song collection of Chess songs goes, “The Best of Chess Records” is a winner. The artists on the album read like a who’s who of blues, rhythm ‘n’ blues and rock ‘n’ roll: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Etta James, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

“I Can’t Be Satisfied”, one of three songs by Muddy Waters included here, is a highly influential number. Recorded in 1948, it was Waters’ first hit, and was also the first time the electric guitar (played by Waters) was used on the heretofore acoustic Mississippi Delta blues, a sound cultivated in the 1920s and 30s by such Delta musicians as Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James and the legendary Robert Johnson.

“I Can’t Be Satisfied” put Waters (born McKinley Morganfield) on the path to stardom and legendary status himself. As shown in the movie, Waters’ music influenced a generation of British 1960’s rockers (and later, American rockers), including the Rolling Stones, who named their band after one of Waters’ songs, “Rollin’ Stone”. In addition, Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” was the inspiration for the Stones’ most famous song, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.

Chuck Berry was extremely important in the development of rock and roll. His songs were recorded by a number of 1960’s artists, including the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, and his guitar riffs were echoed by numerous musicians, most prominently Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Included here is Berry’s first hit, 1955’s “Maybellene”, which featured a country sound imbued with a bluesy, pop sheen.

Other Berry songs on the album are “Nadine”, “No Particular Place to Go” and “Promised Land”. While these are fine songs, it’s safe to say that if this album was really the best of Chess Records, other Berry songs would have been picked, such as, “Johnny B. Goode”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Rock and Roll Music” or “Sweet Little Sixteen”. Still, his four songs on “The Best of Chess Records” have a lot to offer.

Hands down, the best singer on the album is Etta James, whose vocal depth and interpretive ability are awe-inspiring. On “At Last”, James takes a mainstream ballad and adds some soulful, rhythm ‘n’ blues touches, including a few “blue notes” (the imaginary notes between the piano keys). As good as this is, however, her rendition of “I’d Rather Be Blind” is the highlight here, and she gives an emotive, penetrating performance on this heartbreaker of a song. Rod Stewart later sang his version of it.

Challenging Muddy Waters’ status as king of the blues at Chess was the phenomenal Howlin’ Wolf (born Chester Burnett), another blues legend (Chess really had some great artists). Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning”, heard here, has become a blues standard, and he sings with his customary raw, gritty intensity. This song was also recorded by the 60’s British Invasion band, the Yardbirds. Also recording Wolf songs were the Rolling Stones, Cream (with Eric Clapton) and an American band, the Doors.

As mentioned earlier, Chess Records played a big role in the development of rock’n’roll, and Bo Diddley played a big part. His signature “shave and a haircut, two bits” shuffle beat became highly influential (Bruce Springsteen used it on “She’s the One”, from 1975’s “Born to Run”). He also added a bit of funk to his songs, creating his own distinctive sound. He’s represented here with his iconic “I’m a Man”, and though the song doesn’t have the famed shuffle beat, it does have the funk.

Little Walter is widely considered the best musician to ever put his lips to a harmonica. His big break came when he joined Muddy Waters’ band, and his exciting, inventive harmonica lines answered and commented on Waters’ commanding vocals. Among Walters’ accomplishments is his pioneering of the amplifier to help craft a moaning, echo-like effect, along with boosting the sound. A certified blues legend, Little Walter’s two biggest hits were “Juke” and “My Babe”, both of which are presented here, along with another hit, “Last Night”.

“The Best of Chess Records” comes highly recommended, though, as said before, not everything is the best of Chess here, and it doesn’t include such esteemed Chess names as Jackie Brenston, whose “Rocket 88” is considered by many to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record ever made, Koko Taylor, John Lee Hooker, Fontella Bass, Lowell Fulson, Buddy Guy, doo-wop groups the Flamingos and the Moonglows. Still, as far as a one disc collection of 16 Chess songs goes, “The Best of Chess Records” is a good one.