2120 South Michigan Avenue
My name is Tim Samuelson, and I’m the cultural historian with the city of Chicago. And I’m also on the board of the Blues Heaven Foundation that owns and operates the old Chess Studios at 2120 South Michigan Avenue.
And that’s where we meet right now.
That’s where we are. We’re standing right in Leonard Chess’s old office. This is where all the deals were cut. In this little, small-scale building, that kind of turned the music business on its ear.
You say this is the office of the bus? No, I don’t believe you.
It’s true, I mean you think in terms of the recording industry in the 1950s, and that were people who would have offices that would be like these huge rooms, with fancy mahogany panelling and fancy furniture. This was a real family run business, small scale, they didn’t want to spend any more money than they had to on furnishing, so it’s really kind of small scale and modest. But kind of this impromptu characters what gave Chess such a distinctive sound. Because they didn’t have any kind of pre-conceived industry ideas of how record executives should behave, or what they should record. They just kind of follow their own guts and instinct.
While we`re standing here in the office, can you give us in a few sentences a bit of a background of the two brothers?
The Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil, were two Polish Jewish immigrant brothers came to Chicago with their family when they were children and they were striving to find a way to make good in the United States, and so, for example, young Leonard Chess tried all kinds of things, you know the great American dream of making some money and succeeding. So he was somebody who was, one time a milk man, he sold shoes, he did all kinds of different enterprises. And then, later, he went into the likker business. On the south side of Chicago. Wit a clientel that was primarily for African-American patrons. And from that he came into the night-club business, and with the night-club business came live music. And then there was this idea, well, maybe you could make some money by recordings of the people that played in the night-club business. And then that’s the whole story of Chess Records. It would be the two brothers, it would be Leonard and Phil, and people who remember them as really kind of tough, stree-wise guys. I mean they might not have had a lot of formal education, but their education was kind of from the school of hard knocks, street-wise, tough, savvy, no nonsense business-men. But at the same time they seemd to have that uncanny feel for music. Also, in terms of things like the blues and jazz, there really was no background that they had in it. But they seemed to have a good relationship to it.
Hi, how are you? Max is the name.
Mary Dixon, pleased to meet you.
Nice to meet you, Mam.
So, this is Willie Dixon’s wife.
You want to know the blues, you can meet the blues, right here.
Well, I hope so. I grew on it.
Well, first of all I must say I’m terribly sorry that your daughter died.
I read it and she was so young.
Yes, she were.
That was so sad to hear.
Well, we’re just trying to make the best out of it. She put her whole life into this foundation, trying to make it happen. Unfortunately, her life was cut short. But she always will be remembered and she’ll be with us in spirit.
So, what do you do right now here?
Well, I’m just here monitoring the building making sure that things are getting back up and on the run, you know, pick up on so many things we have to do, to catch up with what she already had been involved with. I was living on the west coast, so I’m back here now and trying to make sure with Tim and Joe and Gans that we can start this foundation up and do it back what my husband’s mission were about the foundation.
Your husband worked here for quite a long time.
My husband, yes, he did a lot of producing here and brought in much of the blues that were known up to this very day, that was projected through the late Muddy Waters, the late Howlin‘ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Lowell Fulson, just to name a few of the artists, Little Walter Jacob, so he brought in the music and they projected it first.
I always wondered, he was such a prolific writer of songs. How did he do that? Did he have any time for his family?
Yes, he did. He would start a song by either reading the newspaper or something someone might have said out on the streets, and he would start to write the song, never completing it the first day, the very first day, and he had time for his family. He was very much involved with his childrens, and in to the home when he was at home.
Are there any favorites of your husbands?
In music? Well, being a person that loved the blues when I met him, most of his songs, I would say, most of his songs are my favorites, all of them, as a matter of fact. I can’t just say one, you know, because they’re so many of them that I did love. And admired the way he was to put it together.
So, please say two.
O. K. So that was two, a special.
No, I mean just mention two of the songs that are dear to you.
„My Babe“, don’t stand no cheating, I love that one. And „I’m Ready“.
Did you help your husband sometimes? I know that – famous case – with Jimmy Reed, his wife wrote quite a lot of the things together with him.
No, I did not. And, unfortunately, that was not true that she, what she did, she wrote down the lyrics, because he could not read or write. I think he came up mostly with his own songs. In his lyrics. You know, I’ve head the story so many times, actually, he could not write, he was uneducated to that point. And Mary Lee would write down the music for him. Fortunately, Willie could do his own writing, his song would come up with his own ideas, there was a time even when sometimes the kids might have said something in the house, that struck something, you know, he paid attention to it and wrote a song about it. He and my grandson wrote a song in his last days about „Study war no more“, you know, my grandson gave a couple of words, he gave a couple of words and they put it together. And that was in the last recording that he had ever done, in his life-time.
Was it a musical family at your place?
Well, he insisted all the kids play piano. You know, he insisted on that And he had other childrens, by a previous marriage, he, one of his sons by that wife played bass, one played piano. And that’s about it, yeah. But all my kids was forced to play the piano. Inlcuding my grandson, my oldest grandson.
But isn’t it a good thing if you have musical kids at home?
Yes, it’s something great, but he never insisted on drum playing, you know, but they, one of the kids had a set of drums. That didn’t last veray long, I think it was too much for his nerves this having drums in that small apartment.
I always thought, I don’t know if I’m right or if I’m wrong that Willie Dixon was really the man who did much more than what was attributed to him. I think he had a much more important role.
Much more important role in what now?
In developing the music, in developing rhthm and blues.
Well, he did. I think Willie did a great , he was a great part in that, maybe the onliest person who had a great part in shaping the blues and the rock’n’roll music together. He just wasn’t blues, because, you see, Willie was a trio before he was the blues artist, the Big Three Trio, The Four Jumps of Jive, and The Five Breezes, and they did whatever they could do just to make a living. And it really wasn’t all called blues. You know.
Thanks very much, meeting you was wonderful.
Thank you, the pleasure’s all mine.
And I just want to say one thing, when he, his ideas and his thoughts about having a Foundation, a non-profit organisation, he wanted to make sure that artists behind him, and artists along with him, understood the business side. That was tragic what happened to him and many, many artists before, about their, the business side of the music. And that’s what the Foundation stands for. And with Tim and Joe, I believe you spoke with Joe, we’re trying to establish a team to get all that to happen, musicians, basically blues artists, usually pass away with no insurance, no Medicare to even help them to survive in the world until they die. And that’s what Willie wanted to have them, to happen. He also wanted the blues music to be as popular as any other music out there. He had a saying and I thoroughly agree with him and I hope many other peoples find it equally the same in belief, is, the blues is the roots, and all other music is the fruit from the roots, and if the roots die, that fruit will not be existent any more. And I seriously agree with him on that. Because as a kid, the first blues music I believe my father brought into the home was the original Sonny Boy Williamson, and that was back in the 40s, and it was „Baby Please Don’t Go“. And I think ee must have bought that record ten times because of his old vinyl record, and each time it broke and you could get if for about 10 cents a record at that time. My mother was into spiritual. And I find the same, different words, calling on the Lord, in the spiriual song, but it is always in a somewhat suffering condition, blues, as well as spiritual. And what I admired about the blues artists, and blues ladies, they went out and they sang their feelings, they wasn’t ashamed to do this. These people was uneducated book-wise, but they had knowledge to say, well, you know, I’m here, and I need to be heard and he went out and he talked about, „woke up this morning, my baby was gone“, they wasn’t ashamed to go out and say this, but it wasn’t „keep this inside the house“, your wife is gone, your man is gone. It was I go out and I can project this to the world and let them know how I feel and make people feel good about it, you know. Willie got a lot of his writing ideas from old cliches, „Hoochie Coochie Man“ that was a thing that people in the south went through, as was
called gipsy peoples, could tell your fortune, and if you listen to the song, that’s what he tells you in the song.
But your husband came from the south.
He was born and raised in Vicksburg, MS.
Now there is a street dedicated to him.
Yes, I was down there for that dedication. That’s his home, that was the home that he grew up in, in Vicksburg, MS.
I saw it when I was in Vicksburg, last year, I think, or two years ago, I thought the street could have been a bit bigger.
Well, you know, I thought the same thing, but a little bit of anything is better than nothing. And he did get that. So far the city of Chicago has never given him anything, in honor of Willie Dixon, and I believe we have a plaque here, isn’t that right, Tim?, that shows that Willie Dixon was the first person that put on a blues festival here through the old Mayor Daley and Joice Dunn. And that was in August of ’69. But it wasn’t enough to get a stream named in his honor here, it hasn’t got there yet, you know. Maybe I better pull on the sun, before he goes out of the office, ands say, you know what, Willie’s name hasn’t been recognized but it is a great honor that they did put that short street, and I spoke with the Mayor of Vicksburg and he was thinking of expanding that street out, you know. But I thought it was such a beautiful scenery where they named the street in his honor. And, again, Willie always told his kids and he alwyay told me, to appreciate it, if it’s very small, we very appreciate that and I very appreciate that they did recognize that Willie Dixon was born in Vicksburg.
Yeah, I felt the same, I mean, it’s still the south. I mean, a lot has changed, but it’s still the south.
Even if you talk about the midwest, like we’re talking about Chicago, there is nothing named in his honor. And I think he played a great role here in the music. And so far nothing, the only thing we got is Blues Heaven Foundation and I must admit the city did help put it back together when we purchased the building, but you still can’t drive down the streets and see Willie Dixon’s Way here in Chicago. And they have several, many people they have named streets in honor of, including the late Muddy Waters. But Muddy had did recordings down in the south, in the Delta, before he came to Chicago. But I do know the world knew Muddy Waters by that „Hoochie Coochie Man“ and „I’m Ready“, we knew him on
“ Can’t Be Satisfied“, „If I Was A Catfish“, those was his first recordings. And I listened to them very diligently, as a kid. But the other race of peoples didn’t know Muddy Waters until he came to Chess. And he started to project many of the songs that Willie wrote. You know, „I’m Ready“, „Hoochie Coochie Man“, „The Same Thing“, and I’m out there at the festival grounds every year, here in Chicago. And peoples gonna name songs that only was written by my late husband that Muddy put ou theret, but I say it again, he was my favorite artist, he was singing the blues, those were the songs, „I Can’t Be Satisfied“, „Still A Fool“, „Honey Bee“, and those was his first recordings coming out of Clarksdale, Mississippi I believe they were. And others too, just to name a few of the songs that he done. So, we gonna keep on pushing to get his name somewhere else. And I’m sure that will happen. And peoples like yourself out to hear more stories about Willie Dixon will get the news out there as well. And that smile that you see on that photograph there, is a genuine smile. That man could wake up in the morning time smiling, I could wake up mad as I did get up, you know, we don’t have any money, light meal need to be paid, and his theories were: „If I had the money to do it, you wouldn’t talk about it. I would just go ahead and do it. So I’m doing the best I can.“ He also used the term, I’m a little fish in a big pond with a short stick but I’m fighting like hell to get out of it.“
So, those were some of the things. And he kept a smile. You know, I seldom saw that man angry. I remember in his last days in his illness, his Reno doctor came to me out there in Burbank, California said, Miss Dixon, Willie is a very depressed man. And I said, how can you tell? He said, he kept it inside of him. And then he went in and he told Willie that he appeard to be depressed. And Willie said to me, When was the last time I sound depressed? I never knew I was depressed? But you listen to some of his music, it shows frustration, just listen to the words very carefully. But he always smiled, so it wasn’t like the public could see him with a frown on his face at all given time. He wrote it and then he let someone go out and project it in the music. In his very last days he didn’t realize that he wrote his frustration on a paper. But he did. And it went over great.
Wonderful photo, yeah.
But that was his genuine smile all given time, I believe that photo was done in Longbeach California at the Longbeach Blues Festival. With a young man called Magn Olbert out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, yeah.
It was great meeting you, and talking to you. Thank you very much. You will be part of my radio feature now. You will be heard all over Germany.
Oh Gosh! What else can I say? I should say „Hello!“.
So you’re from Germany?
Yeah, that’s right, I’m from Berlin, Germany and I work as a free-lance journalist and this is the same as your National Public Radio. We’re covering all of Germany.
Willie used to go all the way to Germany.
Willie used to go to Germany a lot.
Yeah, I know, I never saw him but I know.
Yeah, you know, when we moved to California I never knew what happened to it, I used to keep his airline tickets, when they gave the cardboard tickets. And it would extend from this wall to over there and come back. Because he was in every little town in Germany, and he always brought the kids little souvenirs, where he could get something there. But I remember he would go over all through the small areas of Germany. And he seemed to loved it. He was proud to be able to be going over there.
Good to hear.
I never heard him say anything but Thank God for those countries that accepted the blues and let him come in and project what they did. The voice, you know. He and Memphis Slim went over to Paris, France, right. In 1959? I want to believe they were celebrating New Year nowhere, that’s how they got started the blues artists over there.
They came on a regular basis to Germany. And it was a huge success.
Lippman and Rau Konzertbüro?
American Folk Blues Festival, it was called.
Right, right. They did a video on that, not a video, but a DVD on that. Did you see it, Tim?
I know it.
Have you seen it?
I thought it was great, with all those old timers that are gone now. But, the old timers. Yes.
It’s very funny also when you see the audience nowadays.
And you know the guy, when they’re coming off the plane, Big Joe Williams, I think he did a had his twelve-string guitar, and Willie with this big bass. It was one of the highlights of his life to go, come and go back over there. He always felt that they was well-received in Germany. You know. In later years he tried to get me to come, he went back over in 78 and did the New Generation, and I think that is the last time he went over. I believe he had had the amputee at that time and he went over, to take the New Generation which was Billy Branch and Maud Son and the other part of his band over there.
So, we’re looking forward to keep the blues out there, so, if you came all the way to the United State to take it back, we love that.
30) So, Tim, what did you say, where are we here?
Well, now we’re in Phil Chess’s office which is not that much bigger than Leondard’s office. And actually as the record label grew, they had other people working in this room and they just partitioned off a little place in the back where they sat side by side for a while. It was pretty low-key operation. But they tried to make it some kind of assemblance of being a modern place. This was an old building that they used to sell autoparts out off. It was not a very glamorous part of town, and in typical of the 1950s they made one wall all red-wood panelling, and in what was then very modernistic ribbed glass on the side. This was real luxury by the Chess’s terms, in 1957, when they moved in here.
In 57 they moved in here?
Yes. They took the building. Before they were here there was a firm in here that did automobil upholstery and there was a place that sold tires out of here. And they came in and made this not only their offices, but they put their studio in as well. So they could have a self-contained operation.That you could plan the records, and then actually create the recordings here.Then you didn’t have to pay for an outside recording studio. But also you could kind of then let the musicians take their time and get comfortable in the space, rather than worrying about making a recording where you had to get out at a certain time casue you were allowed so much hours, and you had to pay by the hour, too, but here you could almost get something that would be closer to what a club environment was. People could sit around and try things out. Bounce ideas around, and that was part of the chemistry that made the Chess sound.
Nearly all of their artists were African-Americans?
A good part of the Chess catalogue was African-American artists, but there were other artists as well of other nationalities, but certainly it’s known certainly for its work in blues, but then often people don’t talk about the great jazz records that came out of Chess, Ahmed Jamal and Ramsey Lewis. Gospel records came out of here, comedy records came out of here, it was actually quite a diverse label. In fact,it is interesting to think of the output of records that came out of this little building in so many different genres of music and entertainment.
What was their relationship to their musicians? You just mentioned already that having the studios here, he could afford it, or they could afford it to give them more time. What was their relationship, were they the bosses?
It was kind of an unusual relationship between the Chess and their musicians, it’s very complicated and hard to kind of break down. In some ways, I would say, the Chess brothers came to Chicago from a poor immigrant family and kind of got their education in the streets of Chicago. And it was a tough life. And although they certainly had not much knowledge of African-American culture or the blues, I think there was a kind of a connection between the brothers and the African-American artists, because they were the outsiders in the city, as well. And even though the Chess’s knew nothing about the blues or what it was about or the history of it, they still seemed to have a feel for it that they respected it. That they heard it, and they knew there was something to it, and tried to nurture it. Part of the way they did it is by leaving the artists alone. And many of the big recording studios they wouldn’t record the rugged emotionally charged Chicago blues artists at all. Or they would try to just kind of homogenize the sound, take the power and the intensity out of it. But here, because the Chess brothers had no idea what was saleable, I think they originally thought the records would be just for local distribution, for people who lived in Chicago. Who were African-American, who came from the Mississippi delta, that their records wouldn’t go that much farther than that. And they just thought the records to be produced as the performers wrote them and actually put them on record without much difference the way they would have played in clubs. And that makes a difference. You really have this pure Chicago blues that was totally unhampered by conventional thinking on what makes a record saleable. in the early days they didn’t care they just wanted to sell some records to people on the south side of Chicago. They never anticipated it that these records would eventually be finding themselves not only across the country, but even blues artists and young rockers getting people to traveling to the United States to bring back those Chess records, and airline employees France became this wonderful kind of hot commodity that out of this little tiny building on Michigan Avenue it completely impacted the sound of international popular music.
Yeah, we can at least mention one important group, The Rolling Stones, that were very dedicated to some of the musicians that came out of Chess. And they also had a song, an instrumental. I remember when I first bought that record in the mid 60s I guess, I wondered, what does that mean, 2120 South Michigan Avenue?