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Before Motown, There was Atlantic and Chess.

Jan 03 '04

The Bottom Line Many consider Motown Records to be the father of modern day Rock and
Roll. If so, then Atlantic and Chess Records MUST be considered the Grandfather.

I once wrote a essay entitled "Is Rap Music Bad for African Americans". Some people
misunderstood the direction of my essay and unfortunately it raised a few hackles.

In that essay, http://www.epinions.com/content_3591086212 I recounted how in my


childhood I had perseverated on Black, Rhythm and Blues (the precursor of Rock and Roll)
music and artists. These artists and the many who came before them, whom I unfortunately
never heard and whom I can't identify, are the true driving force in the creation of Rock music
and by extension my current favorite, certain kinds of Metal Music.

If I may be metaphoric, picture a rose bud. Think of it as Rhythm and Blues, the father of
Rock and Roll. As the bud opens petals start to become individual sub genres of Rock and
Roll. As the years pass we get more and more petals. We get Pop, Soft Rock, Pop Rock, Hard
Rock, Alternative rock, Punk Rock, Heavy Metal, etc. Some petals fall off and are not heard
from again but new petals take their place. Pychedelic rock, Art Rock, Folk rock, Rockabilly,
Hair Metal, Progressive Rock/Metal, Euro rock, Electronica, Industrial Rock, etc. Will the
R&B flower ever run out of petals? I doubt it.

I can't imagine what music would be like if not for these pioneers of Rock. The music before
was infinitely boring with titles like "Papa loves Mombo", "On Top of Old Smokey" and (I'm
not kidding) "How Much is that Doggie in the Window". In all fairness, there was some good
stuff as well, songs like "Ghost Riders in The Sky", "Cool Water", "Hernado's Hideaway",
and "Cry" by early 50's heart-trob Johnny Ray, but overall pre-rock and roll music was
bland.

With the birth of Rock and Roll came the advent of diversity. Before, music was like Cream
of Wheat, after, it's more like spicy, Chili Con Carne with crackers. We have gone from
vanilla ice cream to hot fudge sundaes with nuts and whipped cream. Thank God for Rock
and Roll.

Which brings me to the subject(sorta) of my essay. While there's no denying the importance
of Motown Records contributions for African American Music, they were not around in the
early years. The artists I listened to in my adolescent and teen years recorded on labels such as
Vee Jay, Imperial, Checker, King, Ace, Crown, Sun and probably the most important labels
Atlantic/Atco and Chess/Checker Records.

All of these early Indie labels, including some Black owned, and to a much lesser extent,
major labels such as Decca, Mercury and RCA Victor, contributed to the fledgling rock and
roll evolution but none more than Atlantic/Atco and especially Chess/Checker Records.

Chess/Checker Records

Started by Polish immigrant brothers Leonard and Phil Chess in 1947 bought an exiting
company called Aristocrat Records and changed the name to Chess Records, "The home of
the Electric Blues". The Chess brothers knew exactly what kind of music they wanted for
there label, Black Jazz and Blues. With the landing of Muddy Waters the tone was set and
his acquisition set Chess apart from all the hundreds of other R&B companies springing up
around the country.

They may have been Polish but this is no joke, the Chess brothers knew the Blues and within
a couple years had a stable of extraordinarily talented Black artists to be the envy of the
industry. In addition to Muddy Waters(Mckinley Morganfield), labelmates Howlin Wolf,
Eddie Boyd, Memphis Slim, Willie Mabon, John Lee Hooker, Joe Turner, Little Walter,
Otis Spann and Bobby Bland were making Chess Records a leader in the Blues field.

By 1955, Chess had added Bo Diddley and Sonny Boy Williamson but no one had the
impact on the company, the industry, even the country(at least til Presley) that Chuck Berry
did. Chuck Berry put Chess records on the map, and gave little Chess Records credibility
with the big boys.

With their trophy artist in hand Chess signed several new artists and groups. The Moonglows
and the Flamingos in the fifties and Buddy Ray, Otis Rush, Etta James, The Dells, Little
Milton Campbell ("We're Gonna Make It," "Who's Cheating Who?" and "Grits Ain't
Groceries."), the Radiants ("Voice Your Choice"), Billy Stewart ("Summertime"), Bobby
Moore & the Rhythm Aces ("Searching For My Love"), Tony Clarke, James Phelps, and
Bobby McClure all recorded on Chess. Many other artists including a bevy of ladies also
recorded for Chess but in 1969 things went bad.

In 1969, Leonard Chess died, stilling the heart and soul of Chess Records. Previously that
year, Phil and Leonard had sold the company to a company called GRT, who tried their best
to hold things together. Sadly, the momentum that had enabled Chess to become a giant,
began to erode. In 1975, GRT closed down the logo, selling to All Platinum Records of
Englewood, New Jersey.

In 1985, MCA acquired the rights to the massive Chess treasure trove. At the start of 1987,
MCA began to mount a long-term reissue campaign of the invaluable Chess masters - an
ongoing program that is gathering steam.

Atlantic/Atco Records

While Chess was locking up many of the best R&B artists in the midwest, Atlantic and it's
subsidiary Atco were becoming the Big Dogs of the East Coast R&B scene.

As with Chess Records, Atlantic Records was founded in 1947. It's founder was the son of a
former Turkish Ambassador, Ahmet Ertegun. Ahmet's story is very interesting but for the
sake of expediency I will move along.

Unlike Chess Records which pretty much dealt only Black musicians, Atlantic was an equal
opportunity record label.

Atlantic's impressive list of artists included Ray Charles, The Drifters, Clyde Mcphatter,
Bobby Darin, Genesis, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Herbbie Mann, Roberta Flack, Ruth Brown,
Tori Amos, INXS, Bette Midler, The Coasters, The Robins, Aretha Franklin, The
Cream, Sonny Bono, Sam and Dave, Foreigner, Phil Collins, Wilson Pickett and on and
on..........., which as you can see include both white and black artists.
Atlantic also had an impressive list of Jazz artists as well but despite the fact that they were
more diversified than Chess, there can be no denying that Atlantic Records played a major
role in the evolution of Rock and Roll.

Of course, Atlantic records is still churning out good music of all genres and has become a
major player in the record industry and could now be considered a major label. However even
though they have become a major label, thank goodness, they still seemed to be operating
with Indie label mentality.

A couple of paragraphs probably should be devoted to the so called major labels.

Very few serious music affectionados seem satisfied with the quality of the material, that the
majors seem to want to force feed to the public. They are apparently too big and have too
much inertia to see the writing on the wall and that is why the Indies are having a resurgence
of popularity.

It should be noted that, with Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll, they were terribly behind
the curve. We got Rock and Roll, no thanks to them. In fact not only were they slow in
embracing Rock and roll, they were also slow embracing the creators of Rock and Roll,
shamelessly allowing White artists such as Pat Boone and Bill Haley to cover Black songs,
while ignoring the Black artists, until the public caught on.

So, even in this day and age, when it comes to good music, the majors still seem to be
clueless!