Sun 25 Jan 2009
With the release of the movie Cadillac Records, based on Chess Records, I though I would do a show about Chess' early years when they were operating as Aristocrat Records. The bulk of the information in today's show notes comes from The Red Saunders Research Foundation's exhaustive look into the operations of the label.
The company was founded by Charles and Evelyn Aron. From June through December 1947, talent scout Sammy Goldberg helped to point the label toward rhythm and blues; he brought Jump Jackson, Tom Archia, Clarence Samuels, Andrew Tibbs, and Sunnyland Slim to the label. Initially, their partners were Fred and Mildred Brount and Art Spiegel, none of whom took a leadership role in the business. By September 1947, Leonard Chess, the proprietor of a neighborhood bar and after-hours joint called the Macomba Lounge, had invested in the company and become involved in the sales end of Aristocrat's operations. Leonard Chess's name was first associated with the company in an item that appeared in Billboard on October 11, 1947; he was identified as a new addition to "the sales staff." By then he was already wholesaling Aristocrat product out of the trunk of his Buick.
Over time, Leonard Chess increased his share in the firm by buying the Brounts out. As he became more involved in the record business, he increasingly left the day-to-day operation of the Macomba to his brother Phil. After the Arons separated in 1948, Leonard Chess and Evelyn Aron ran the firm. In December 1949, Evelyn Aron married Art Sheridan and left to form American Distributing. The Chess brothers bought out her remaining share and became the sole owners; only at this point did Phil Chess become involved in the record company's operations. On June 3, 1950, the brothers changed the name of the company to Chess. Aristocrat thus survived in its original form a little over three years. For a small, undercapitalized company it was quite prolific. It appears that 264 titles were recorded by Aristocrat for release, and another 28 tracks recorded by others were purchased and released during the lifetime of the label, for a total of 292.
Today's show is obviously geared to Aristocrat's blues output although the label issued a broad scope of musical styles. As the Red Saunders website notes: "The most-recorded musician during 1947 was Lee Monti, who led a polka band with two accordions; the second and third-most recorded artists were jazz tenor saxophonist Tom Archia and uptown blues singer Andrew Tibbs. In the early going, the company also recorded the piano trios of Prince Cooper, Duke Groner, and Jimmie Bell, ballad singer Danny Knight and crooner Jerry Abbott, a gospel group called the Seven Melody Men; it even tried out Country and Western guitarist Dick Hiorns. When Muddy Waters scored a hit with "I Can't Be Satisfied" in June 1948, the label's orientation began to shift… The dual emphasis on jazz (Gene Ammons) and down-home blues (Muddy Waters, Robert Nighthawk, The Blues Rockers) wasn't fully established until the first half of 1950, after the Chess brothers had bought out Evelyn Aron's remaining share of the company."
Aristocrat has been well served over the years by blues reissues. Everything Muddy Waters cut for the label, along with most of Robert Nighthawk, can be found on the 1997 2-CD set, The Aristocrat of the Blues which is where most of today's tracks come from. The label's other holdings, particularly jazz and R&B, have never gotten comparable treatment.Below is some background on today's artists.
Sax man Tom Archia performed mostly in jazz and swing bands. He cut some R&B sides for Aristocrat in 1947-48 as well as backing blues singers Andrew Tibbs and Jo Jo Adams. Jo Jo Adams was among the most flamboyant singers of Chicago's South Side who sang an urbane style of blues that prevailed in the 1940's. He also danced, told dirty jokes, and showed off his wardrobe of loudly colored formal wear with extra-long coattails. More often than not he doubled as MC at the clubs he played. Archia's sides are collected on Tom Archia 1947-1948 on the Classics label.
In the late '40s, drummer Armand "Jump" Jackson worked as a bandleader on sessions for labels such as Columbia, Specialty, and Aristocrat; his band backed up vocalists such as St. Louis Jimmy, Roosevelt Sykes, Sunnyland Slim, and Baby Doo Caston. He also drummed on at least a dozen classic blues albums, backing artists like John Lee Hooker and Robert Nighthawk. In 1959 he founded La Salle Records and began putting out his own sessions as well as sides by Eddie Boyd, Eddy Clearwater, Little Mack Simmons, and his old playing partner pianist Slim In 1962, Jackson was chosen as the drummer for the first American Folk Blues Festival tour of Europe.
The Dozier Boys were a long-lived vocal/instrumental group. They originated on the near North Side of Chicago around 1946 and disbanded in 1970. They made a number of appearances on television, and they recorded for several different labels between 1948 and 1964. Willie Dixon introduced them to Leonard Chess and made their first sides for Aristocrat in 1948.
The Four Blazes were founded in 1940 and became the Five when they added Ernie Harper, a piano player from Pittsburgh, in 1945. The group made their recording debut in 1947 for Aristocrat.
Andrew Tibbs got his start singing in church choirs. When he surreptitiously began singing blues in clubs, he used his middle name and his mother's maiden name, becoming "Andrew Tibbs." He was singing at Jimmy's Palm Garden when Sammy Goldberg saw him at the club and signed him to Aristocrat; Leonard Chess saw commercial potential in recording Tibbs, and decided to invest in the company. Tibbs' debut session has always been said to be the first one that Leonard Chess attended. Tibbs continued to be the company's top seller until well into 1949. Tibbs' output is available on Andrew Tibbs 1947-1951 on the Classics label.
Sunnyland Slim moved to Chicago in 1939 and set up shop as an in-demand piano man, playing for a spell with John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson before waxing eight sides for RCA Victor. If it hadn't been for Sunnyland, Muddy Waters may not have found his way onto Chess; it was at the Sunnyland's 1947 session for Aristocrat that the Chess brothers made Water's acquaintance. Aristocrat was but one of a myriad of labels that Sunnyland recorded for between 1948 and 1956, cutting sides for Hytone, Opera, Chance, Tempo-Tone, Mercury, Apollo JOB, Regal, Vee-Jay, Blue Lake, Club 51, and Cobra. An excellent selection of Sunnyland's early sides can be found on the JSP box set Sunnyland Slim And His Pals: The Classic Sides 1947-1953.
Clarence Samuels was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana andbegan his career singing in his father's band. In 1943, he moved to New Orleans, and began singing in local bands. By 1947, he was the manager and house singer at the Down Beat club. At this time, Sammy Goldberg, was working as a talent scout for Aristocrat. He discovered Samuels at the Down Beat, and lured him to Chicago, where Samuels began performing at the Macomba Lounge and made his first recordings for Aristocrat.
Forrest Sykes worked steadily in Chicago from 1947 through 1952. Before that, he seems to have enjoyed a brief tenure as an added attraction in Lionel Hampton's band. He cut five sides for Aristocrat in Oct. 1947, two were unissued including the track we played.
Muddy Waters was renowned for his blues-playing prowess across the Delta, but that was about it until 1943, when he left for the bright lights of Chicago. Sunnyland Slim played a large role in launching the career of Muddy Waters. The pianist invited him to provide accompaniment for his 1947 Aristocrat session that would produce "Johnson Machine Gun." One obstacle remained beforehand: Waters had a day gig delivering Venetian blinds. But he wasn't about to let such a golden opportunity slip through his talented fingers. He informed his boss that a fictitious cousin had been murdered in an alley, so he needed a little time off to take care of business. When Sunnyland had finished that auspicious day, Waters sang a pair of numbers, "Little Anna Mae" and "Gypsy Woman," that would become his own Aristocrat debut 78. "I Feel Like Going Home" became his first national R&B hit in 1948.
When Robert Nighthawk stepped into the Aristocrat studios on November 10, 1948 it had been about eight years since he recorded under his own name. Once in Chicago he resumed his acquaintance with Muddy Waters who he had know down south. Muddy arranged for his recording session with Aristocrat. "I put him on the label" Waters stated.30 Waters further explained: "Well. I taken him to my company, you know and…I helped him get on a record. Yeah, I taken him around to Chess, and then Chess heard him play, and he liked it." He cut three sessions for Aristocrat through early 1950. "Annie Lee Blues" cracked the R&B charts on December 31, 1949 reaching the number 13 spot and staying on the charts for one week.
Blues harpist Forest City Joe was heavily influenced by John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson.Joe was remembered as a "great harp player" by Muddy Waters. Joe was raised in the area around Hughes and West Memphis, AR, and even as a boy played the local juke joints in the area. He hoboed his way through the state working roadhouses and juke joints during the 1940s. Beginning in 1947, he also began working the Chicago area, and a year later had his one and only session for the Chess brothers' Aristocrat label. He made a final session for Atlantic Records in 1959, passing away in 1960.
Leroy Foster was a charter member of the Headhunters, a band that included Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers. He switched to rhythm guitar to accompany Waters on several of his 1948-49 Aristocrat 78s, notably "You're Gonna Miss Me (When I'm Dead and Gone)," "Mean Red Spider," and "Screamin' and Cryin'," as well as Johnny Jones's rolling "Big Town Playboy." Foster also recorded for Aristocrat as a front man: "Locked Out Boogie" and "Shady Grove Blues" were done at a 1948 date that produced six Muddy masters. All of Foster's recordings can be found on Leroy Foster 1948-1952 on the Classic label.
Johnny Jones established himself as one of the greatest piano players on the Chicago blues scene. Jones was influenced greatly by pianist Big Maceo and followed him into Tampa Red's band in 1947 after Maceo suffered a stroke. Johnny Jones's talents were soon in demand as a sideman — in addition to playing behind Tampa Red for RCA Victor from 1949 to 1953, he backed Muddy Waters on his 1949 classic "Screamin' and Cryin'" and later appeared on sides by Howlin' Wolf. He's best know for baking Elmore James on sessions between 1952-56. Jimmy Rogers, and Leroy Foster backed Jones on his 1949 Aristocrat label classic "Big Town Playboy." In all he cut only eight sides before passing at the age of 40 in 1964.