W.W. Norton's new Enterprise imprint gets off to a great start with Rich Cohen's incisive, spicy and frequently hilarious Machers and Rockers: Chess Records and the Business of Rock & Roll. Cohen, a Rolling Stone contributing editor deftly achieves the imprint's goal of illuminating the business experience in a literary manner by spotlighting (and occasionally exaggerating) the quirky personalities and lifestyles of two Chicago music icons: producer and Chess Records founder Leonard Chess and transplanted Mississippi native McKinley "Muddy Waters" Morganfield.
Chess' greatness came in his identification of one underserved market (African-American consumers) and the development of another (white teens who also loved black music). Cohen argues that in the process Chess also helped invent rock 'n' roll by aiding Waters' decision to electrify the blues, and later doing the same thing for Chuck Berry's merger of teen angst lyrics and black rhythmic backbeat.
Cohen depicts Leonard Chess as the prototypical independent record label owner: a slick operator who both greatly admired and frequently hoodwinked the performers who made him a multimillionaire. From deducting the costs of lavish parties from their royalties to playing fast and loose with songwriting credits, Chess kept label profits high and artists earnings low. Still, Chess truly did care about the fortunes of his acts, often bailing them out of tough personal situations. Chess Records unraveled when the tricky coalition between white immigrant owners and black performers was shattered by Dr. King's assassination and the emergence of a militancy that insisted African-American artists dissolve business alliances deemed paternalistic and exploitative. The reality of Chess was far more complex than that, but it didn't matter. Leonard Chess sold his company for a fraction of its true worth in 1968 as the corporate takeover of rock gained steam. Today's big four-dominated, sterile universe pales (in more ways than one) by comparison. Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville City Paper and several other publications.