by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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The history of the label that began on the South Side and the events that occurred during its heyday in the 50’s through late 60’s is great storytelling, with actors such as Jeffrey Wright playing guitar great Muddy Waters; Mos Def playing Chuck Berry; Eammon Walker playing Howling Wolf; Columbus Short playing Blues harmonic player Little Walter; Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess; Cedric the Entertainer as songwriter Willie Dixon; Beyonce Knowles as Etta James; and Gabrielle Union as Geneva Wade; among other stand-out portrayals that also include the Rolling Stones and their fixation with the Blues.
But how much more of the story, told in retrospect through the eyes of Dixon, is true or embellished remains to be seen. One glaring omission is the other part of Chess management in co-owner Phil Chess, Leonard’s brother. But the movie, while maybe lacking in veracity, is rich in music.
The movie presents that Chess, who was from Poland and vowed he’d make money, first began as a saloon owner who booked Blues acts at his club. After a while when he figured out he could make money off of this new sound, he began Chess Records. Not everyone was happy with Blues music; the local preacher called it a “dangerous business,” saying he had lost a couple of daughters to Bluesmen.
The carrot that Chess kept waving in the performers’ faces was a new Cadillac when their records would make it to the top of the charts. After a while, though, Waters would question why he was getting so few royalties, whenever he’d fall short on his mortgage or bills. Chess would convince him that his records were selling well, or he’d tell him that he was driving a new Cadillac. Waters had signed his first contract in haste, probably not even understanding what he was signing, just trusting in Chess, who said he considered him family.
Waters said he thought he was “meeting himself for the first time,” when he was featured on a “folk music” taping, before packing up and leaving Mississippi for Chicago. Waters’ career takes off after he records Dixon’s Hoochie, Coochie Man in 1954, and his rendition is listed as one of Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 greatest songs of all time.
Union is great as the long-suffering, nurturing wife of Waters, and she’s as close to a mother for Little Walter as he’s ever had. Little Walter is shown as a powder keg, having first started drinking at the urging of Waters, and ultimately getting into scrapes with the law and finding a rough life of drugs and alcohol abuse after he leaves the label, which Waters says felt as if his “oxygen” had left, since he and Little Walter were great friends. Little Walter has been characterized as using the harmonica to gives Blues a “painful sound,” and the movie shows him as a talented, influential artist. He recorded the chart-topping My Babe in 1955 shortly after his mother’s death.
The movie touches on Civil Rights, payola, womanizing and race records; as it shows Berry’s performance being turned upside down when the thin rope that was separating the blacks from the whites was moved aside, and the groups mingled to dance to his unique guitar licks, and young white girls lapped behind him as he did his famous “duckwalk.” Young, white girls would cause Berry to serve jail time, also, as he was once convicted under the Mann Act. Cadillac Records also shows Berry’s songs being covered by white groups, instead of him being able to cross over.
Walker is great as Wolf, and he seems to be the most independent of the bunch, as he insists on keeping track of his own earnings and drives a beat-up truck, instead of a shiny new Cadillac.
While the trailers and promos advertising Cadillac Records make it seem as if the movie is greatly based upon James’ story, Knowles joins the cast, late in the movie, toward the beginning of what ultimately would be the end of Chess Records. James’ drug addiction is explored, with Knowles giving an admirable performance as well as James being mentioned as the first Black female cross-over act. One astonishing fact presented in the movie is that James’ father was the legendary pool hustler Minnesota Fats.
The relationship between Chess and James, I’ve read, was not accurately portrayed in the movie. But, as with many stories based on real life events, writers take poetic license and alter things as they see fit. I’d suggest that some of the actors may have been wrongly cast, but definitely Wright as Waters is very compelling.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is a veteran public relations and journalism professional and former journalism professor. She’s publicist for her daughter, Hip-Hop artist Psalm One. A native Chicago South Sider, Elaine was a recent University of Maryland Bio Ethics, Health Disparities & Clinical Trials Fellow and winner of a Black Press Messenger Award.
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