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Will the real music mogul stand up?

Two films highlight role of Jewish immigrants in popularizing blues and rock

 
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David Oyelowo as Muddy Waters, left, and Alessandro Nivola as Leonard Chess in “Who Do You Love.” Photo courtesy International Film Circuit, Inc.

For decades, only music aficionados knew much about the history of Chess Records (c. 1950-1975), a label famous for discovering and recording some of the most important names in blues and early rock and roll.

But Hollywood can be a strange place. In 2007, two companies independently decided to make film biographies about Chess Records, and the screenwriters made Leonard Chess (1917-1969), the Jewish founder of Chess Records, the central character of both “Cadillac Records” and “Who Do You Love.”

You wouldn’t be alone if you only dimly remember the first film and haven’t heard of the second. “Cadillac” had a bigger budget and more stars than “Love” and won the race to be distributed to the theaters, opening in December.

The producers of “Love” showed their film at the January 2008 Toronto Film Festival, but then put it on the shelf, waiting for the moment when the market might be ready for another film on the same subject. “Love” opened last Friday and is showing in a limited number of theaters. “Cadillac Records” is already out on DVD and no doubt “Love” will follow.

I saw both films before writing this article. I spoke to the star of “Love,” actor Alessandro Nivola, who played Leonard Chess. I also interviewed Marshall Chess, 68, a music producer who worked with his father. Marshall cooperated with the makers of both films, but was more connected with “Love.”

To Tell the Truth

As I watched the two movies after reading “Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records” (2000), I was reminded of the old game show “To Tell the Truth.” The show featured three guests, all claiming to be someone who had done something extraordinary. The panel of judges had to guess who was telling the truth (i.e., was the person he or she claimed to be) and who were the two impostors.

The Leonard Chess in Cohodas’ book bears only a passing resemblance to the Leonard Chess in “Cadillac Records,” as played by Oscar-winning Jewish actor Adrien Brody, 37 (“The Pianist”). The Leonard Chess in “Love,” as played by Nivola, 37, is a lot closer to the “real” Leonard Chess, but considerable liberties are still taken with his life story.

So two biopics failed to capture the real Leonard Chess. But, as Cohodas and Marshall Chess agree, some critical aspects of Leonard Chess’ life were only known to him — and, sadly, he cannot fill in the details. Maybe his brother, Phil, now 90 and retired to Arizona (with Sheva Chess, 88, his Jewish wife of 60-plus years), could fill in a few details. But the “real” Leonard Chess will always remain a bit of mystery.

Mystery or not, Leonard Chess, not a performer himself, wasn’t exciting enough to be the center of a traditional musical biopic. In the hands of a master dramatist, his life could be the center of a multi-part series about Chess Records that actually seriously tried to tackle the many issues that inevitably arose when Jews and blacks were thrown together in showbiz relationships in the mid-20th century.

The Real Leonard

Leonard Chess was in 1917 in Motal, a town in eastern Poland, the son of Yasel Czyz, a Jewish shoemaker, and his wife, Cryla. Leonard, born Lejzor, was the middle of three children. His sister, Malka, was two years older and a brother, Fiszel, was four years younger. In 1921, Yasel immigrated to Chicago, where his wife’s uncle had settled. Calling himself Joe Chess, he opened a dry-goods store and sent for his family in 1922. Yasel/Joe met his family in New York and he and his wife picked out American names even before the reunited family reached Chicago: Cyrla became Celia, Malka became Mae, Lezjor became Leonard, and Fiszel became Philip.

Joe would change his businesses several times, but managed to provide an adequate working-class lifestyle for his wife and children. In the ’20s, he built some homes and apartment buildings. However, the Great Depression killed construction, so in 1935, he went into the junk business with his brother-in-law. It was a tough business that required long hours. But the family survived with whatever extra income the older children could bring in from paper routes and the like.

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Leonard Chess, around 1957.

In 1940, Leonard, then 23, was working as a shoe salesman when his uncle died and he took his place as a partner at the junkyard. Around the same time, Phil got a college football scholarship. However, he dropped out after three semesters because his father needed his help.

Leonard married Revetta Sloan, who was Jewish, in 1941. In 1942, they had their first child, Marshall. (They would later have two daughters.) The same year, Leonard bought a liquor store in a black neighborhood, wanting to strike out on his own and tired of arguing with his father about how to run the yard. Phil helped his brother and his father until he was drafted in 1943. He married Sheva during basic training.

By the time Phil returned, in 1946, Leonard had sold the liquor store, bought another, and sold it to buy a bar/club he renamed the Macomba Lounge in a mostly black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.

One of the mysteries of Leonard’s life is how he (and Phil) developed an ability to discern what black jazz and blues acts were “good” and would attract lounge patrons.

From here I have to speed up the story: Leonard was already interested in recording his lounge acts when he found out in 1947 that Evelyn Arons, a relatively wealthy Jewish woman with an ear for blues and jazz, had founded a new label, Aristocrat Records. Leonard and then Phil worked as salesmen for Aristocrat, hitting the road to get record stores to buy and DJs to play the records. By 1950, he and Phil owned the company outright and named it after themselves. Arons’ marriage had broken up, she wanted out, and Phil and Leonard had some cash: a big loan from their father (who was now running rooming houses for black people) and insurance money from when their bar burned down.

Over the next 19 years, they would turn Chess into a legendary independent label. In the first five or so years, the best sellers were “down-home” raw blues performers like Willy Dixon and Muddy Waters. In the ’50s, the son of the blues, rock and roll, emerged. Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, two of the black pioneers of rock, were their biggest rock acts. In the early ’60s, black jazz/blues/pop singer Etta James (“At Last”) was among their biggest sellers.

Leonard and Phil were Chess Records: They divided the country into territories and hit the road to get DJs to play and stores to buy their records. It was legal until around 1960 to bribe DJs to play records, and the Chess Brothers bribed like everyone else. They also scouted new acts and eventually had a network of scouts around the country. Plus they were in the studio, producing the acts.

As you may expect, Leonard (and to a lesser extent, Phil) was influenced by the jargon used by their performers, using black slang — often profane — in their business dealings. Marshall Chess and Alessandro Nivola (the star of “Love,” who listened to a tape of Leonard) told me the brothers’ speech was a mixture of heavy Chicago accent, with a hint of Yiddish and a lot of black expressions.

Meanwhile, as Cohodas writes, they were in other respects fairly conventional Jewish fathers of the era — buying better homes as their finances improved; giving big to Jewish charities; having bar/bat mitzvahs for their children; not discussing business with the wives but giving the wives domain over the home and the children’s upbringing; giving their sons part-time jobs in the business but shielding their daughters from the rough talk of the music studio.

Phil worked hard, but Leonard was a total workaholic. Marshall told me he did what he could to see his dad, whether waking up at 6 a.m. to catch his father coming home (a scene depicted, at Marshall’s suggestion, in “Who Do You Love”) or going out on the road with his dad, starting at age 13, so they could have some time together.

But, of course, they weren’t in a conventional business. When they started, they were trying to sell records to the relatively small African-American market. Bankruptcy was a constant threat. They were squeezed by bigger labels, DJs, stores, and the companies that pressed their records. Unsold records could be returned for a refund and buyers were slow to pay for old hits unless Chess had another new hit record they wanted to get their hands on.

Cohodas pored over all the business records she could find and couldn’t establish — as many others have charged — that the Chess Brothers exploited their acts or didn’t pay royalties they owed. Marshall Chess has always maintained that, if you added all the money paid to acts, his father’s accounting was correct. “Money paid” included royalties, advances, bail, “requested gifts” (like cars), and bribes to DJs and others.

The truth is hard to discern and, likely, some Chess label acts probably did better than others. Basic record royalties for musicians was very small in those days — and are still small, today — except for superstar musicians with long careers.

The charge of underpayment, of course, brings up the stereotype of the clever Jew exploiting the uneducated blues artist. One frequent rejoinder is that Jews, being outsiders themselves, were the only whites willing to even take a chance on these artists, who would not have sold a single record if not for Jewish “record men.”

In any event, in the mid-’60s, Leonard Chess started to move out of the record business. He was being pressed by bigger labels and, even though he gave generously to black charities, he was also being pressed by civil rights groups to hire black executives and give up his control. He moved into TV and radio stations appealing to a black audience and, in 1969, he sold the label to a WASP-owned company in California that proceeded to wreck Chess Records within five years.

Shortly after Leonard sold out, he died of a sudden heart attack. Sadly, his parents were among the mourners at his funeral.

The influence of Chess-label musicians was profound — especially on the British Invasion groups that were heavily blues-oriented, like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. In the mid-’60s, they made pilgrimages to Chicago to see Chess Records’ headquarters. Marshall Chess would work with some of these groups and, in recent years, managed the Chess catalogue, which he recently sold. Marshall’s son is also a music producer.

The ‘Impostors’

Leonard Chess was a fairly emotional guy, so I could just imagine his reaction to “Cadillac Records.” As the movie opens, Leonard, as played by Adrien Brody, is running a junkyard alone. There is no indication that he has a brother or father working with him. Phil Chess simply doesn’t exist in this film. Marshall Chess says, “It was like having a movie about the Wright Brothers and leaving one of them out.”

From the first scene, Brody’s Leonard is a ’50s-type hipster. If you have ever seen a tape of comedian Lenny Bruce or Dustin Hoffman’s movie about Bruce, “Lenny,” that’s the style. It’s edgy, urbane, swinging — but it isn’t Leonard Chess, who, despite his black street talk, was closer to your conventional Jewish “Uncle Morty” than a quasi-beatnik after too many cups of espresso.

Brody’s Leonard is married to Revetta as the movie opens and they have a young son. But he barely interacts with them for the rest of the film.

Early in the film, Leonard wanders a little distance from the junkyard and discovers a boarded-up storefront that he turns into the Macomba Lounge.

From this point, the film is a kind of timeline blur as Leonard moves from the lounge to found “Cadillac Records.” Some of the performances by actors/musicians playing the real-life Chess records acts are good.

Very good is superstar singer Beyonce Knowles as Etta James. Marshall Chess told me that her soulful performance was his favorite in “Cadillac.” But almost as soon as Beyonce appears, she (as Etta James) enters into a torrid romance with Leonard Chess.

Etta James, who is 71 and suffering from dementia, couldn’t set the record straight when the movie came out. But she mentioned no such affair in her tell-all memoir. Nobody who knew the pair seems to believe they ever had an affair. This includes Marshall Chess, who never saw any evidence that his father had an affair with anyone. He adds, “I wasn’t around with my father on all his road trips. Could he have had an affair I didn’t know about? Yes. But he loved my mother and I didn’t know about any affairs.”

“Cadillac Records” was written and directed by a black woman, Darnell Martin. It is obvious, from the film, that she didn’t want to delve seriously into the issues of Jewish/black relations or the charges of exploitation. So she wrote a relatively breezy tale that relied on the music and a torrid invented affair to carry the film.

Alessandro Nivola’s interpretation of Leonard Chess is, as I said, closer to the mark. His Leonard is a driven businessman who could be a bit of an SOB, and everyone agrees that the real Leonard was driven and not always nice. Plus Nivola’s Leonard does have a brother, Phil, who is accurately depicted as Leonard’s indispensable lieutenant. (Jewish actor John Abrahams plays Phil.)

Still, “Who Do You Love” delves into fiction in its very first scene. In order to explain Leonard’s attraction to the music they made their lives and livelihood, two child actors, playing Leonard and Phil, stand on a Chicago slum street transfixed by an old black man playing the blues. In reality, there is little or no indication that Leonard or Phil got into black music at all until Leonard started working in a black neighborhood at age 23.

The movie does touch on but doesn’t go deep into the royalties dispute. For the most part, it is pro-Leonard Chess, showing how he gave lavish gifts to his musicians — and sometimes moved royalties from one artist to another, but not into his pocket.

The music is not quite as exciting as in Cadillac Records. But “Love” does open with a letter-perfect imitation of Bo Diddley singing his seminal rock hit “Who Do You Love?” (Diddley is not even in “Cadillac.”)

In order to jazz things up, “Love” invents an affair between Leonard and a completely fictional beautiful black singer with a drug problem. Nivola told me that it is his film’s biggest leap into unreality and he really couldn’t defend the decision to make up the affair.

He also told me that he was aware of “Cadillac” when he agreed to make “Love,” but the other film did not deter him. He loves the blues and wanted to play Leonard Chess.

According to Nivola, the film’s director, Jerry Saks, a multiple Tony-winner, decided to make the film for another reason. Saks, 63, was born in Germany in 1948, the son of two Holocaust survivors. He grew up in Paterson.

Saks told Nivola: “There are tough Jews and there are placating Jews. I’m a placating Jew. Leonard Chess was a tough Jew.”

Nivola’s Leonard Chess is tough, but still not the real Leonard — in part because Nivola is a strikingly handsome man whose looks give “his” Leonard a certain charisma. The real Leonard Chess may have had a certain charisma, but he was a very average-looking man who had to reach inside to project authority to others.

Maybe both actors who played Chess were miscast. Both have Jewish backgrounds but are from arty families. Brody’s father is an American Jewish English teacher and his mother, Sylvia Plachy, is a famous photographer. Plachy is the daughter of a Hungarian Jewish mother and a Hungarian Catholic father. Her father hid her mother during the Holocaust in Hungary.

Nivola’s paternal Jewish grandmother, Ruth Guggenheim, fled Nazi Germany and settled in Italy in the mid-’30s. She stayed in Italy with family friends, the famous (Jewish) Olivettis of office machine fame. There she met an Olivetti employee, graphic artist Costantino Nivola, who came from an Italian Catholic peasant family. They married in Italy, but fled to America in 1939 when Italian friends warned them that the police were about to arrest Ruth because she was Jewish.

Ruth’s parents had fled directly from Germany to America. In America, Costantino hung out with the great Abstract Expressionist artists of the 1950s and became quite famous as a sculptor and muralist himself. Alessandro, whose father is a political science professor, told me he was very close to Costantino and Ruth, who died in 1988 and 2007 respectively. The actor’s mother is not Jewish and he was raised in a secular home, but he certainly knows a lot about Jewish history.

So, as you can see, both Brody and Nivola have interesting backgrounds. But the thing about Leonard Chess is that his background was “American Jewish immigrant ordinary,” certainly not musical or intellectual.

Maybe an average-looking American Jewish actor of working-class, non-intellectual/arty background would have got closer to the “real Leonard Chess.”

However, such an actor still would have to rely on a talented screenwriter to come closer to explaining how Leonard Chess became a critical midwife of the popularity of the blues and rock and a main conduit of this music to mainstream America.

Hollywood, so far, has to invent biographical episodes to try to explain it. It also has to jazz up his life to make it “movie exciting.”

It is possible that the answer to the mystery is deceptively simple, so simple that Phil Chess has never been able to put it in capsule terms. The blues record business was a way up and out of poverty for the Chess Brothers. Unlike their white Christian contemporaries, they didn’t care if it meant working with black people. They saw their opportunity and worked themselves to the bone to succeed.

Probably other Jews tried the same thing, but nobody remembers them, because unlike Phil and Leonard Chess, they had no ear for blues and rock music and couldn’t pick hit records or recognize a potential hit artist.

Literally thousands of Jewish businessmen succeeded in America in the same general way as the Chess brothers; they saw opportunities others didn’t and took a risk and worked incredibly hard. What the Chess brothers had was a talent to recognize talent. That’s no different from other inborn talents like musical or athletic ability. Record industry people call it “having an ear.”

So, if you asked Leonard Chess how he knew what was good, he probably couldn’t answer. It would be like asking Tiger Woods why he was born with golf talent or asking Yitzhak Perlman about his ability to play the violin.

As I was putting the finishing touches on this article, Marshall Chess wrote me to say, “Chess legacy is the music. Everything else is secondary and will fade in the dust, but not the music, the brilliant artists and [Chess Records’] role in the foundation of rock and roll.”

 
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Stay tuned for the return of comments

Zeev posted 05 Nov 2010 at 08:41 PM

Great, informative article. I’ve been a lifelong fan of Chess Records, and was looking for a comparison between the 2 films in terms of their historical accuracy and portrayal of Leonard for a long time!

 

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