The first time D.C.-based author Nadine Cohodas met Phil Chess, she was reminded of her grandfather and her great uncles. She thought of them again when, at a party celebrating the release of her book about Chess and his family, Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records, she decided to say a few words.
“I said to the folks gathered in the room that I thought that a major aspect of the story of Chess Records is the immigrant story in America played out in the music world,” Cohodas says. “It felt to me that I was in some way telling a version of my own family’s story.”
Chess and his late brother, Leonard, were immigrant Jews from Poland who built a mini-empire recording and selling the music of seminal Chicago blues artists such as Muddy Waters and, later, early-wave rockers Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. While Cohodas has a strong personal connection to the brothers’ story—she, too, is a Jew of Eastern European descent who grew up in the Midwest—the author didn’t let her own history seep into the pages of her book.
At its core, Spinning Blues is an exhaustively researched tale about the early stages of what later became the modern pop-music business. The book is mostly chronological, and the bulk of its 300-plus pages are devoted to the day-to-day dealings of the pioneering entrepreneurs. Spinning Blues begins in Poland, when Phil and Leonard Chess were still Fiszel and Lejzor Czyz, but by page 28, Leonard’s a streetwise Chicago nightclub owner with a fondness for American slang.
“This is not a book about Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf,” says Cohodas. “This is Leonard and Phil’s story. This is the story of how a company got created that put out this music.”
The most compelling aspect of this creation tale is not, however, the Chess brothers themselves, but rather the way in which they related to the musicians around them. The rosters of Chess Records and its subsidiaries were filled overwhelmingly by black musicians, many of them southerners who migrated to Chicago in the mid-1900s. Leonard Chess was notoriously tightfisted with money, prompting innumerable squabbles with his artists. But the brothers were remarkably evolved when it came to their attitudes about race, especially considering that Chess Records’ heyday was in the pre-civil rights ’50s and ’60s. Berry was a frequent house guest at Leonard Chess’ home in the Chicago suburbs, and one of the book’s more poignant scenes takes place at his son Marshall’s bar mitzvah—a racially integrated event that Cohodas, a nonpracticing attorney, points out took place “less than a year after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.”
Cohodas, a former Congressional Quarterly reporter, started work on Spinning Blues more than three years ago. She’s authored two other books—Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change and The Band Played Dixie: Race and Liberal Conscience at Ole Miss—and doesn’t have any plans yet for a fourth. “I’ve been kind of living with Leonard and Phil and the whole business for three years,” she says, “and I haven’t let it go yet.” —Brett Anderson