OA: Rock Cesario Column January 02, 2009

For music lovers, 'Cadillac Records’ is must-see

I do not go to very many movies anymore, and I really don’t know why.

But last Sunday, Kenda, Matt and I went to see “Cadillac Records,” and I am glad that we did. It is a great movie that I will definitely see again.

“Cadillac Records” is the story of Chess Records and how Leonard Chess and his label were a big part of the electric blues movement in Chicago that eventually led to the origin of rock ’n’ roll music.

The nickname Cadillac Records came about because Chess would buy every singer with a hit song a brand new Cadillac.

The story is narrated from the viewpoint of Willie Dixon,  bass player, producer, singer and songwriter, who wrote many of the label’s biggest hits, such as “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “My Babe,” “Little Red Rooster,” “Bring It On Home,” “Spoonful,” “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “You Shook Me.”

The last two songs were covered by Led Zeppelin on its first album without Dixon’s permission, and he later successfully sued the band for $1 million.

Chess was a Polish immigrant and was operating as a junk dealer in Chicago before he and his brother got into the nightclub business. After one of their nightclubs burned down because they had black musicians performing live, the brothers used the insurance money to purchase Aristocrat Records, quickly renaming it Chess Records.

One of the first singles released on the new label was Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone” followed by Jimmy Rogers’ “That’s All Right.” These guys always played on each other’s records and Dixon was usually the bass player.

Muddy Waters’ sound took a huge turn for the better with the addition of harp player Little Walter. Walter began blowing his harp into a microphone to the objections of everyone except Chess, who encouraged his artists to do things differently.

In the process, Little Walter forever changed the way the harmonica was used in blues recording and had his own string of hits, the biggest being “My Babe.”

Howlin’ Wolf was the next one to show up on the scene, and he was used to doing things his way. At 6 foot 3 and more than 300 pounds, few people argued with him.

One time when Chess tried to tell Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin to turn down his amp, he was admonished by Wolf, who told Chess to talk to him because it was his band and he and only he would tell his players how to play.

Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf did not get along. When Muddy Waters stole Sumlin from Wolf’s band, Wolf told Muddy that if he ever did it again, he would kill him. Muddy never bothered Wolf again.

I had the pleasure of meeting Sumlin when he played here with the Legends of Chicago Blues for a concert a few years back. But that’s another story.

Chess’ biggest discovery of the 1950s was Chuck Berry, who signed to Chess Records in 1955.

From Berry’s first hit, “Maybellene,” he essentially wrote the book on rock ’n’ roll, creating its most memorable guitar riffs on singles such as “Johnny B. Goode” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

The Beach Boys were later successfully sued by Berry for plagiarizing “Sweet Little Sixteen” with “Surfing USA”

I just hit some of the highlights of this great movie. If you liked the movie “Ray” you will definitely want to see this film.


Rock Cesario owns Triple Play Records, 530 Main St., and hosts “Acoustic Sunday” from 9 a.m. to noon Sunday on Drive 105.3 FM. E-mail him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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