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The Chess Project updates the sound of a legendary blues label

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMOKESTACK LIGHTNING")

HOWLIN' WOLF: (Singing) Whoa, smokestack lightning.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The blues is a family business for Marshall Chess. His father, Leonard Chess, co-founded the legendary Chess Records label of Chicago in 1950. And, boy, did they release music - Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Etta James, Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf, many, many more. Marshall Chess is 81 now. He's behind a new album that reimagines blues classics from the archives of the label with a brand-new sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMOKESTACK LIGHTNING")

HOWLIN' WOLF: (Singing) Whoa, smokestack lightning. Whoa, smokestack lightning.

SIMON: The album is called "New Moves." And Marshall Chess joins us now from the studios of WAMC in Albany, N.Y. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARSHALL CHESS: My pleasure.

SIMON: Why this album now, Marshall?

CHESS: Well, I love making records. I had a medical problem in 2019. I was stuck on the couch for over a year, learn - had to learn how to walk again. And I called my old producer friend, who I had worked on the other blues albums with and said, let's do something. It was just spreading the blues to new demographics.

SIMON: Is there a song on this album that really sort of depicts what you're trying to get at?

CHESS: I picked all these songs about stuff I was trying to get at. I had a lot of girl problems in my life, so a lot of these songs are about men's problems with women, you know? She kicked me out; it was 9 below zero, you know? But in this album, we recorded a new song called "Help Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELP ME")

THE CHESS PROJECT: (Singing) You gotta help me. I can't do it all by myself. Oh, yeah.

CHESS: And I just love that lyric. Help me, I can't do it all by myself. I mean, see the thing about the blues that I learned very young, the psychological therapeutic factor of the blues. Everyone has problems with women, rent, money, and the blues told it in a very basic way. But everyone doesn't realize that they're common problems.

SIMON: You put a band together just for this project, right?

CHESS: Keith LeBlanc is one of the top drummers in the world. And Skip - the guitar player - Skip McDonald - each of those guys have played with hundreds of artists - The Rolling Stones, Seal, right down the road. And Bernard Fowler is one of the best Black vocalists in America today. He tours with The Rolling Stones, I think, for the last 15 years. And we put them together, and then I let Keith advise me of the best players in the world.

SIMON: I mean, there's such an extraordinary wealth of material from Chess Records. How did you decide what to include?

CHESS: I just picked these tunes - what songs I had played over my life. You know, like I had - my first wife and I got divorced. There's a few of those kind of songs in there, you know? And then I'm 81, my friend. And the two songs on there, "Mother Earth" and "Going Down Slow," they're about dying. I know that's coming up, and they make me feel better about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOING DOWN SLOW")

THE CHESS PROJECT: (Singing) I'm going down slow. Please write my mother. Tell her the shape I'm in.

SIMON: Marshall, you were a small boy when your father and uncle started Chess Records.

CHESS: Yep.

SIMON: What was it like to grow up?

CHESS: Like growing up in the circus, you know? I loved it. I actually started work at 13. We're Jewish. After my bar mitzvah, I went on the road with my dad, 1955. My first road trip through the South. I remember seeing the bathrooms, colored only. The first Chess record recorded in 1950 was a saxophone guy named Gene Ammons, and I was at that session. I slept on folding - metal - it was old, metal folding chairs. My dad was a workaholic. My mother guilted him, and he dragged me around. And when I once asked him after I started working, what's my job, dad? He looked at me and said, your job is watching me, so...

SIMON: (Laughter).

CHESS: ...You know?

SIMON: Well, I have to ask, Marshall, was there tension, acrimony, controversy in your time over white producers, white label owners having such an influence over the blues and Black musicians?

CHESS: No. No, there wasn't. I don't remember that until much later. That weren't any Black record executives, Black recording studios. At first, it was controlled by the major labels - RCA, Columbia. Then the independent record business started. And what made that happen was payola. Guys like my father could pay a disc jockey 50 bucks. He'd play the record. You'd know - you knew what you had, you know? And that's how this whole...

SIMON: Your father did that?

CHESS: ...The whole thing started. Of course, yeah. Without payola, there wouldn't have been rock 'n' roll, my friend. I said that at the Grammys when I picked up an award for my father and uncle, and everyone gasped, you know?

SIMON: Well, good for you for stating stuff like that out loud. Is there an artist you've worked with that you were around in the heydays of the Chess era that you particularly admire?

CHESS: Oh, no doubt. Muddy Waters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANNISH BOY")

MUDDY WATERS: (Singing) Now, when I was a young boy at the age of 5, my mother said I was gonna to be the greatest man alive.

CHESS: I was his white grandson. Muddy Waters, by far. His wife, Geneva, numerous times sent me - she knew I loved fried chicken. I was always working there in the summer in the shipping room. An immigrant son, you know, you worked. And I - she used to send me fried chicken. yeah.

SIMON: Tell us about "So Glad I'm Living," Muddy Waters' song on this album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO GLAD I'M LIVING")

THE CHESS PROJECT: (Singing) My baby's long and tall, shaped like a cannonball. And every time she love me, oh, I can hear me squall. I cried hmmm, hmmm. I believe I changed my mind.

CHESS: You know, it's about a guy that meets a girl and falls in love. And it makes him feel that good.

SIMON: And how did you change it?

CHESS: It's just - it's the lyrics that are the same. It's the musicians, and they came up with the groove. And it's very difficult the way he constructed the songs because they're not normal music. Basically, they're like what's called a remix, but played live. It's like, when they do a remix, they cut parts up, they reassemble it. But this is done live. So it had to be - it's quite difficult.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO GLAD I'M LIVING")

THE CHESS PROJECT: (Singing) My baby loves me. I know she loves me right. She let me lay down, and I love her all night.

SIMON: How do you keep the blues alive these days, do you think?

CHESS: I'm trying with albums like "New Moves." The blues is just so - it's as good as Beethoven or Bach, man. It's so important to American culture, to a world culture. It's the foundation of rock 'n' roll. But people forget about it. That's why all these experimental albums I've made in my years began to work. I brought in new people, you know?

SIMON: Marshall Chess. New album, "New Moves" by The Chess Project, out now. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHESS: It's my pleasure. I enjoyed it so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO GLAD I'M LIVING")

THE CHESS PROJECT: (Singing) So glad, hmmm... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Danny Hensel
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