Mach­ers and Rock­ers: Chess Records And The Busi­ness of Rock and Roll

Rich Cohen
  • Review
By – July 22, 2015

Rich Cohen has estab­lished him­self as the poet lau­re­ate of what his first book dubbed Tough Jews” — the gang­sters of that vol­ume, the anti-Nazi gueril­las of The Avengers, and now the record com­pa­ny exec­u­tive Leonard Chess of his splen­did new work, Mach­ers and Rock­ers. A native of the Chica­go area, Cohen writes about one of the city’s great­est con­tri­bu­tions to Amer­i­can music, Chess Records, which record­ed such blues mas­ters as Mud­dy Waters and Howl­in’ Wolf as well as such ear­ly rock-nrollers as Chuck Berry. Leonard Chess was no musi­col­o­gist; he was a rough-hewn Pol­ish immi­grant who saw a way to make a buck with the music most whites wouldn’t touch. Yet, in Cohen’s telling, he did reach a kind of empa­thy with and respect for the musi­cians, most of them rel­a­tive new­com­ers to the urban North from the share­crop­ping South of Jim Crow. Too many books about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar music treat its entre­pre­neurs (lat­er to be mil­lion­aires and moguls) either as cre­ative genius­es bless­ed­ly above the hurly­burly of com­merce or else as cor­rupt con men pil­lag­ing African-Amer­i­can art for white gain. Cohen presents a far more sub­tle and sup­ple pic­ture of mutu­al sup­port and mutu­al exploita­tion on the part of Chess and his lead­ing musi­cians; the blacks and whites of Mach­ers and Rock­ers exist in bril­liant­ly drawn shades of gray. 

Relat­ed Content:

Samuel G. Freed­man is a pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism atCo­lum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, the author of four books, and amem­ber of the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil board.

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