Marshall Chess cultivated a stimulating studio at Chess Records with the Cadet Concept label
by Andria Lisle
Marshall Chess literally grew up in the music biz. He was five years old when his father Leonard and uncle Phil Czyz (the anglicization of their name came after their immigration to the U.S. from Poland in 1928) purchased a portion of Aristocrat Records, which ultimately became the iconoclastic, independent blues and R&B label Chess Records. When Marshall turned thirteen in 1955, vocal group the Flamingos played his bar mitzvah, which was attended by the likes of Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun and legendary platter spinner Alan Freed. As a teen, Chess spent most of his hours at the family-run label and recording studio, located at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago, toiling in the basement pressing plant, loading boxes of Muddy Waters singles onto trucks, and, he says, scouting the streets to procure hookers for payola-friendly DJs.
In his twenties, he launched his own label, Cadet Concept, a division of Chess Records that released groundbreaking—and at the time, so avant-garde that critics deemed them unacceptable—work by established artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, alongside albums from left-of-center talent like the Rotary Connection, John Klemmer, the Status Quo, and more. In 1969, after Chess Records was sold to General Recorded Tape for $6.5 million, and after his father’s death a few months later, Marshall Chess became the founding president of Rolling Stones Records, where, for eight years, he oversaw production of such albums as Sticky Fingers, Goats Head Soup, and Exile on Main Street. Today, he works as the C.O.O. of Arc Music Group, a music publishing company based in Manhattan.
How did Charles Stepney wind up at Chess?
Here’s the key element: back in those days, in order to copyright a song in Washington, you had to have a lead sheet made. I was in charge of the A&R department, and I had to find different people to write lead sheets, which meant I’d give ’em a tape or an acetate of a song, and they’d knock it out and send it to Washington. We were paying fifteen or twenty bucks a sheet, and someone told me about this guy Charles Stepney.
We had a little cafeteria on the eighth floor, and during the course of his first year here, I ran into Charles up there. We were having a cup of coffee, and he had this four-inch-thick manuscript with him. He said it was a symphony he’d written. I asked, “Have you heard it?” He said, “How could I? I hear parts of it in my head, and on the piano.” I said to myself, “No, shit,” because I had some ideas for Cadet Concept. I told him, “I want to work with you, man.” I had this idea for an instrumental group, Rotary Connection. A buddy of mine, an advertising whiz kid, had come up with the name while we were smoking reefer one night. I wanted to use Minnie Riperton, who used to be the receptionist at Chess. She was in a vocal group called the Gems, and we used her on an Angela Davis record. I really liked that high C note of hers. So Charles said, “Yeah, I’ll work with you.”
So that’s how the first Rotary Connection album got started?
From the very beginning, Chess was a great place for creativity. The blues stuff was cut mostly during the daytime, and, at night, we’d record jazz guys like Roland Kirk and Ahmad Jamal, who would come to the studio to lay down a session for $200 apiece after playing a gig downtown. I had a key to the studio, and two or three nights a week, Charles and I would come in and work on our stuff.
Between he and I, we evolved the basic sound of the group, and we picked the songs. Our string players at Chess were these Jewish Russian guys from the Chicago Symphony. Finally, Charles was gonna get to hear his string arrangements for the first time in his life—I’ll never forget his white shirttails sticking out, and the sweat pouring out all over his face. If the album had been on Atlantic, it would’ve been a million-seller on the soul market. As it was, we only sold 100,000 copies, because [Cadet Concept] was looked at as a White record company.
On the first Rotary Connection LP, we used a sitar, and I got Charles into using feedback. I played theremin—I’d first heard it on my first LSD trip, when a guy played “Good Vibrations,” which just blew me away, so I ended up renting one for the session. At the first Rotary Connection show, I had this big Marshall amp onstage, so I could play theremin with feedback. I was so scared about going onstage that I’d taken Benzedrines and I was making all these distorted faces. My mother was out in the audience, and she started laughing so hard that she peed in her pants.
What was the technology at Chess in those days?
We cut the first Rotary on four-track. Electric Mud was cut on four-track. We’d bounce tracks, which means we’d take two of four tracks and make it into one. This was before compressors. All we had were a few universal limiters and one graphic equalizer. When I learned how to produce, it wasn’t about what you could do after the sessions. It was what you could capture at that moment. The whole element of producing was to get the band to lock into a groove. That alchemy, the magic of playing all together at once, doesn’t exist now.
So Muddy Waters’s electric blues album came next?
Yeah. Muddy’s career was flat, and he wasn’t getting royalties. Plus, I wanted to introduce him to the whole psychedelic audience, which was booming. Muddy trusted me; he called me his little White grandson, so we had a real relationship. Muddy didn’t love Electric Mud, but he did the sessions like an actor would play a role. He gave it his heart and soul. Electric Mud took off like a rocket ship, and it sold 100,000 copies the first week. Then a horrible article in Rolling Stone stopped airplay, calling it the worst album ever made.
You and Stepney also collaborated on Howlin’ Wolf’s psych album [This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album], which is totally brilliant.
[laughs] Wolf never liked it. He did it, though. It still went back to the beginning, which was that we were doing this to make money. You know, I made a terrible mistake on that album by putting a negative on the cover [the white album jacket is boldly emblazoned with the words, “This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either.”].
Obviously, those records were created a few decades too soon.
Number one, the name of the label was Cadet Concept. The Muddy and Wolf albums were conceptual albums—they were produced almost like movies. Muddy did a second album, After the Rain, before the trouble started. Would he have done that if he didn’t like the first record? Years later, he decided to go along with the critics and talk bad about it.
Those critics were rough. Those people never saw Muddy Waters with a sock in his crotch to make his dick look big, or watched Howlin’ Wolf drink a fifth of whisky before he performed. Early electric blues music was party music for Black people. Only in the ’60s, when albums were invented, did the majority of White audiences start listening. Muddy Waters at Newport was one of the first blues albums where we saw that the market was changing. I finally got satisfaction forty years later, when Chuck D sent me an anonymous email about Electric Mud. I still get fan mail—that’s what’s shocking. I’m finally vindicated.
How did Stepney interact with Wolf and Muddy and sessions players like Phil Upchurch and Louis Satterfield? Was there a conflict between Stepney’s classical training and their raw talent?
Deep in his head, there might’ve been some conflict. But his thing was that it had to be musical. Whether or not it was funky was irrelevant. Mostly, I remember him being stressed out about the big sessions with strings and horns and everything. I remember one Dells session that was very complex.
Also, you can’t forget Gene Barge [coproducer of This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album and Electric Mud]. Gene was a crucial element to so many sessions. He brought in the musician part—when Charles wrote some notes, Gene got the musicians to play it that way. He was a great horn player, a schoolteacher from Norfolk, Virginia, who my uncle found one on of his road trips. He cut a single, “Country,” which was a semi-hit for us, and he moved to Chicago and became one of our house arrangers.
Daddy G was very involved with me and Charles on five or six albums. We did one of the first jazz fusion albums together, John Klemmer’s Blowin’ Gold. We formed a fabulous rhythm section—Pete Cosey and Phil Upchurch on guitars, Morris Jennings on drums, and Louis Satterfield on bass and trombone. They were way ahead of their time, the most avant-garde, hip rhythm section around. They wanted to call themselves the Electric Niggers, but my father said no way.
Both Charles and Gene were real musicians, not rock-and-rollers who don’t know how to read or understand chords. Both of those guys were really into music, and the structure of music.
Of you, Stepney, and Barge, who brought the psychedelic influence to Cadet Concept?
It was me. That was my thing; I was totally part of that generation. We’d get LSD from the Sandoz Laboratory in Switzerland. It was legal then, and it was all over the place. Then you had [chemist] Owsley [Stanley] and the purple haze. Nowadays, it’s just disco biscuits, but it was wild in those days…
When I went to Woodstock, I drove all the way there, from Chicago. There’s a rumor that Rotary Connection was supposed to be on the bill but their manager refused to play, but I don’t think that was true. Those were amazing times. I took acid at the Fillmore West while the Grateful Dead were playing—I think the whole room was on acid! Psychedelics were a major revolution in America, then it all got stifled out.
Gene and Charles, I don’t think either of those guys took a psychedelic. They may have smoked reefer, but no acid. That wasn’t a Black thing—it scared them.
And what were Leonard and Phil’s impressions of all of this?
They thought I was crazy. They’d say, “Why you smoking that shit?” My uncle used to say, “You used to dress so sharp. Now you’re wearing these fucking blue jeans.” Then when these records sold 100,000 copies, they said, “Hey, motherfucker!” My father was immensely proud that those records sold. Did they get involved in the productions? Not one iota. Did they listen to a Cadet Concept record all the way through? Not once. Did they like that it was successful? Yeah.
They loved the Rotary Connection and Electric Mud—it was business, and it was growing. But that generation didn’t go home, put records on, and smoke a joint.
And remember, at that time, Chess wasn’t a blues company anymore. We were a jazz label, an amazing gospel label, and we had the best Black comedy out there. My dad was spending two-thirds of every day involved with his radio and TV plans. Decades ahead of BET, he sold Chess because he wanted to use Black culture to expand into other media.
As I was leaving Chess, I helped Charles make his first production contract with the people who bought the company, and he went on to do the other Rotary Connection albums and other great stuff. I was supposed to get a million dollars [from the label sale], and I was gonna expand Cadet Concept. But my dad died before I got the money, and so I went to work with the Stones.
At that point, what did you envision for Stepney’s future?
In my entire career, he was the number-one genius that I found. We had so many ideas together—we were trying to establish a library of African culture. He was a class act, and a great arranger, and if Chess hadn’t been sold, we would’ve really expanded our vision together. If he’d lived, he’d be considered on the level of, say, Quincy Jones, no doubt about it. He was a true budding genius—even at the end, he and I were talking about doing film scores together, which was another one of our dreams. We were very close at Chess, and then I left. You have to follow your path—my world crumbled when my dad died, and then I went with the Stones. Charles’s path went to the grave, which really shocked me. .
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