Sound of blues returns to Chess
By Hal Dardick
On April 28, 1958, rocker Chuck Berry released "Johnny B. Goode," which he recorded at Chess Records Studio in Chicago.
Berry wrote the ditty in honor of blues pianist Johnnie Johnson, who formed the first band to feature Berry. Johnson also was part of the storied history of Chess Records Studio, 2120 S. Michigan Ave., where many blues classics were recorded between 1957 to 1967.
On Wednesday--exactly 46 years after Berry released "Johnny B. Goode," now a classic of the early rock `n' roll era--former Chicagoan Johnson returned to Chess Records Studio to record blues tunes with Styx, a rock band that started in Chicago 35 years ago.
The recordings were the first made at Chess since John Mellencamp in 1989 recorded "Jackie Brown" there and donated the proceeds to the Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation.
Proceeds from the latest recordings also will go the foundation, a
In 1997, the foundation officially made Chess Records Studio its home.
"There's a vibe and a spirit that you can't help but feel when you are in a place like this," said Styx guitarist and singer Tommy Shaw. "To have an opportunity to be connected and do whatever we can to bring some attention to the Willie Dixon Blues Foundation is really an honor, something we can't put a price on."
Johnson said he too was honored. "It means a great deal to me to have these guys in here, and hopefully we will have others to follow," he said. "We hope this will help put Blues Heaven on the map."
To make the recordings, Styx had to haul in their own studio equipment, because the foundation hasn't been able to raise enough funds to fill a contemporary studio, though that remains a goal, and Styx has pledged $25,000 over the next five years to help accomplish that.
When the building was home to Chess, blues greats flocked there. They included the late Dixon, a bass player, a prolific singer and songwriter who wrote "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man" and proclaimed Chicago "the blues capital of the world."
Other blues musicians who recorded at Chess include Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Etta James, Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor. Other musicians influenced by the blues who recorded there included Aretha Franklin and Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones.
Rock 'n' roll, as played by the Stones and to some extent Styx, is derived from the blues, the artists said. "Blues is the roots, and rock 'n' roll is kind of the fruit of the tree that the blues spawned," said Styx guitarist James "J.Y." Young, who was born and raised on the South Side.
"Without the music that was generated in these walls and in this city, we might not be here right now," Shaw added.
Despite the fame of Chess Records among blues aficionados, many young people don't realize its significance, Young said. "They laid the groundwork for all of us to make our living the way we do, and it's time for us to give back," he said.
To do that, the unlikely combo of Styx and Johnson on Tuesday recorded "Blue
Collar Man," and on Wednesday started recording "Hey Mr.
tune in honor of Johnson, Young said. Singer Koko Taylor was invited
Though the musicians were supporting a cause, it also was clear they were having a very good time.
"I looked over and saw how Johnnie had connected with the song," he said. " His whole face changed. I will remember that for the rest of my life."
Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune
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