34 Chicago

How important is it?

After the war, the blues had a great influence on the mass popular music of the United States. Although New Orleans’ rhythm and blues reigns supreme in the South, other styles like Slim Harpo’s swamp blues are gaining ground.

At the same time, Chicago welcomes all kinds of musicians from all over the country. The industrial city becomes a nerve centre of musical production, where a sound of its own is coined that will go around the world.

Slim Harpo – I’m a King Bee (1957)

Theme composed by James Moore, real name Slim Harpo. Example of swamp blues, one of the styles that influenced the sound of Chicago.

In the fifties, in the Baton Rouge area (Louisiana) the swamp blues was developed, where performers like Slim Harpo, Sam Myers or Jerry McCain stood out. This style had a slower rhythm than the Chicago blues and used the harmonica in a simpler way than the interpretations made by artists like Little Walter or Muddy Waters. Some examples of swamp blues are the songs of Slim Harpo: Scratch my Back, She’s Tough or I’m a King Bee.

What was Chess Records?

Special mention should be made of Chess Records, where some of the best musicians in the post-war black music market record and release their albums. They take risks with new techniques and sounds that will create a school.

On this independent label, bassist and producer Willie Dixon creates an exceptional repertoire of songs that will mark the careers of legends of rhythm and blues and rock and roll.

Little Walter – Blues wih a Feeling (1953)

Version of a song composed by Rabon Tarrant in 1947. Walter’s masterful interpretation of the harmonica influenced many musicians who began to play this instrument.

Chess Records was created by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess in 1947 and was based at 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. It was one of the most important companies in the history of popular music in the 20th century. Its records became standards and contributed to the promotion and preservation of genres such as blues, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel and soul. They had the services of great musicians and producers such as Willie Dixon, Roquel “Billy” Davis or Ralph Bass.

What happens at Chess?

Chicago Chess Records also records Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Two young musicians who, together with Fats Domino and Little Richard in New Orleans, define a new black music oriented to dance.

This new rhythm and blues, with electric guitars and faster rhythms, is a new genre in itself, which whites call rock and roll and which is quickly catching on among America’s youth.

Etta James – All I Could Do Was Cry (1960)

Song composed by Billy Davis and the brothers Berry and Gwen Gordy for Etta, one of the most important artists of the Chess team.

Although Chess Records was initially oriented towards blues music artists, it soon opened up to other styles. Diddley and Berry’s playing was more enthusiastic and clearly different from the melancholic aspects of the blues. It was one of the influential factors in the transition from blues to rock and roll. Later, in the sixties, soul was the most successful style in the house, where singer Etta James excelled. Chess’ story was captured in the film Cadillac Records (2008), directed by Darnell Martin.

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