Muddy Meets Chess
Muddy Waters was driving a truck.
He was delivering Venetian blinds. That was his job at the time.
But then suddenly he wasn’t driving a truck anymore. Instead, he had been called into the studios of Chess Records, where record mogul Leonard Chess wanted to record Muddy Water’s authentic, down home style of blues.
Instead of driving the truck, now Muddy Waters was recording two sides for Chess. One was “Feel Like Going Home.” The other was the famous tune “I Can’t Be Satisfied.”
When Leonard Chess first heard the music, he was perplexed. He couldn’t decipher the lyrics. “What the f— is he saying?” Chess asked in bewildered fashion. Chess didn’t think anyone would be interested in buying the record. This was a major concern, because Chess’s modus operandi was to sell records.
The record was soon finished, but it didn’t immediately find its way into record stores. Rather, it sat on the shelf at Chess Records. Muddy Waters would come to the studio each week and inquire, “When is my record going to be released?” Chess would simply tell Waters to have patience. It would happen.
Just not yet.
Delta Blues Comes to Chicago
Leonard Chess had a legitimate reason for holding onto records without releasing them immediately. He was concerned with quality. He wanted to release top-notch products, which would benefit both him and the artists he recorded.
And there was real reason for Leonard Chess to worry about the music Muddy Waters was recording. Waters’ music was the raw stuff. The genuine, real deal. It wasn’t glossy, hi-production urban blues like the music of the classic female singers or the smooth tunes that had been coming out of Los Angeles.
These records were life on the cotton fields.
After some time, though, Chess gave into pressure. He would release the records. Even if he believed that nobody was going to listen to them.
Chess records released “I Can’t Be Satistfied” – a few hundred copies were pressed – in the summer of 1948. Distribution channels were different in those days and the album wound up being sold in everything from grocery stores to newsstands to beauty parlors. Leonard Chess was the architect of this strategy, hoping that the people of Chicago’s south side would recognize Muddy’s name from his live shows and buy the record.
It’s a Hit!
The record sold like hot cakes filled with blueberries. Smothered in syrup. Yum.
When Muddy Waters went to purchase the album himself the morning it was released, he was limited to two copies. That seems unfair. After all, it was his darn record. But that’s because the album was selling so fast the store couldn’t satisfy the demand.
Marketing had been fully based around word of mouth. There was no advertising. It was straight up people on the streets of Chicago hyping up an amazing new record.
By the end of the first day of the record’s release, it was sold out. Leonard Chess was thrilled and to capitalize on the record’s success he pressed thousands more copies of “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” He had no serious comprehension as to why this song – whose meaning or appeal Chess did not understand in the slightest – was succeeding.
But who cared? He was scoring a hit and making money. Just go with it, Leonard!
A Blues Revolution at Chess Records
Suddenly, the whole vibe at Chess Records was changed. What started off as a label selling sophisticated urban blues was now diving into the market of a traditional down home sound from the Mississippi Delta, but plugged in with electric guitar.
The people buying the records were among the city’s poorest folk, the most economically desperate. They could relate to it. It was Clarksdale, Mississippi brought to Chicago in musical form.
Leonard Chess continued to capitalize on the success he was finding with Muddy Waters by signing a slew of other Delta-immersed blues artists: John Lee Hooker, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Little Milton, and more.
In the end, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” sold sixty thousand copies. This was a record held by any single put out by the Chess Records Subsidiary Aristocrat Records. On the Billboard charts it reached the top 20. This was, by all accounts, a significant hit. For Muddy. For Chess. For the down home blues. For the future of Chicago blues.
Not to mention, Muddy Waters was now becoming famous. He could hear his own music being played throughout Chicago. People knew his name. He was no longer a small, anonymous Mississippi farm boy.
Things would never be the same for Muddy Waters. Nor would they ever be the same for Leonard Chess, Chess Records, or the blues.
Sometimes, you really can get some satisfaction.
– J&R Adventures,
Published on March 10, 2017
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