I’m dying to see the new film Cadillac Records, which is based (rather loosely, it appears) on the rise of Chess Records, the Chicago outfit that not only featured the electric blues “gang of four” — Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson — but also Etta James, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, giving the label a substantial claim to also being the cradle of rock and roll.
The film’s casting is inspired: Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters; Eamon Walker as the imposing Wolf; Mos Def as Chuck Berry. Casting Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon, the label’s resident bassist and in-house songwriter, was a genius touch. But a lot of the attention seems to be focused on Beyonce Knkowles, cast as Etta James. Her rendition of “I’d Rather Go Blind” (above) is certainly a Chess classic.
Etta James has had a long career, surviving drug addiction, run-ins with the law and health problems connected with obesity, the last of which she has dealt with through surgery. Here’s a pretty enjoyable blues summit overseen by B.B. King, with Etta singing alongside Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan:
How fried is Chaka Khan? She seems only marginally aware of the company’s she’s with. (Of course, that’s how it’s always been with Chaka — one night she’ll be incandescent, the next night she’ll puke into the bass drum and pass out. It’s happened more than once, believe me.) Pretty ironic, considering that the song is “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.”
I still haven’t seen Cadillac Records, but I notice the cast list doesn’t show anyone as Sonny Boy Williamson, the most colorful performer in a very colorful bunch. One of the best-known incidents in the Chess Records timeline was Sonny Boy’s hilarious, obscenity drenched argument with Leonard Chess during the recording of “Little Village,” all of it captured on tape. (The argument, and the multiple takes as Sonny Boy’s hophead brother in law keeps falling off his piano bench in the studio, make up a 12-minute track on Bummer Road.) The short-lived supergroup Little Village took its name from the Sonny Boy song and used the argument as an overdub on “Don’t Bug Me When I’m Working.”