What does it sound like?:
Chess Records is primarily known as a Blues label based in Chicago. However, in 1951, the Chess brothers went into an association with Sam Philips, before he set up Sun Records. The link with Memphis gave them access to Southern talent. They acquired Howlin’ Wolf this way and with Southern Blues came Rhythm. Chess was, almost by accident, a mid-wife at the birth of Rock & Roll. This two CD set collects together forty cuts the label considers to be Rock & Roll. At least half a dozen of them are classics worthy of a Grammy Hall Of Fame Award.
It begins with Rocket 88, recorded in Memphis, 1951. Credited to Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats, it is actually performed by Ike Turner’s Kings Of Rhythm. Brenston was the saxophonist who turned out to have an enthusiastic tenor voice. Little Richard stole Ike’s piano intro note-for-note on Good Golly Miss Molly. However, the real Rock & Roll ingredients were the distorted fuzz guitar (the result of water dripping into an amplifier), the innuendo-laden lyrics, ostensibly lusting after a motorcar, and the wild playing, especially the saxophone this time played by teenager Raymond Hill, later to become the father of Tina Turner’s first child. All that in under three minutes. Sam Philips somehow managed to persuade the local radio to play it, a black record on a white radio station. The white kids loved it and Philips started a quest for a white man who sounded black.
Five tracks in and there is another historical recording, Sugar Boy & His Cane Cutters performing Jock-A-Mo. It is the story, largely in Creole patois, of two ‘tribes’ clashing during Mardi Gras. Under the title Iko Iko, it is probably the second most covered song in New Orleans after When The Saints Go Marching In. Sadly, the writer, John Crawford, has had little credit. The Dixie Cups released the most well-known version in 1964 and he had to fight them for any share of the royalties.
Next is the first of two Rhythm and Blues heavyweights for Chess, Bo Diddley with his self-titled debut. It is difficult now to appreciate how innovative this record was in 1955, combining an African ‘hambone’ rhythm with a Rock & Roll beat and sanctified guitar chords. It is the first of seven Bo Diddley songs on the collection, demonstrating that he was more than just a one-trick rhythm. The man could sing and rock and even play an instrumental. It’s just a pity they didn’t include the Bo Diddley flip side, I’m A Man, which was a hit in its own right (famously covered by The Yardbirds), making this single 7″ piece of vinyl a genuine double A.
Chuck Berry is the other, even bigger heavyweight. He is represented by six selections. His first, Maybellene, was adapted from a Country song, Ida Red. According to Rolling Stone, it is where Rock & Roll guitar began, the guitar line representing a fruitless pursuit by car. The drive is described in far more loving detail than the errant girl. Johnny B Goode is the very essence of Rock & Roll, the story of a poor Southern boy dreaming of stardom. The original ‘coloured boy’ was adjusted to ‘country boy’ deliberately to appeal to a wider audience. The fluidity of the guitar is free and joyful. This is a record to gladden the heart and generate sales. Chuck was no fool when it came to making money but his guitar licks and his lyrics flow like the finest poetry. It’s odd, therefore, that three songs from the sixties, as good as they are, and the awful My Ding-a-Ling are included when so many better examples of Chuck Berry Rock & Roll are available.
There are also three Dale Hawkins singles. Suzie Q is classic, distorted Swamp Rock, but Little Pig is a novelty children’s song. In fact, it is just one of quite a few frivolous novelty records here, underlining the fact that the Chess brothers were more concerned with sales than a musical movement. Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry was initially encouraged to put on silly voices for Ain’t Got No Home before he was allowed to display his operatic depth on (I Don’t Know Why) But I Do. We are subjected to tongue-in-cheek Elvis tropes (Bobby Sisco’s narcissism, Billy Barrix stuttering his ‘b’s or straight-laced Bobby Fuller) and off-kilter instrumentals (Rinky Dink, Blast Off or Jet Tone Boogie) all in the name of Rock & Roll. Del Saint manages to blend Elvis with The Big Bopper but it’s his saxophonist who tells all the jokes. Mel Robbins can’t help giggling and breathing heavy. It’s good to hear Bobby Charles getting a nod, more than just a songwriting credit, and Lou Josie’s echo-drenched yelps are never a chore.
Just Go Wild Over Rock & Roll is an enthralling collection full of thrills, dynamism and fun, even if not all of it is strictly Rock & Roll music. There are a few duff moments but, overall, if it doesn’t get your pulse racing, please check you are still alive.
What does it all *mean*?
Keith Richards and Mick Jagger bought Chess records for Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. There, they stumbled across Rhythm & Blues and it made them become a successful Rock Band.
Goes well with…
A raucous party
Might suit people who like…
Records that exude freedom and joy.