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Screens & Tech

'Who Do You Love' explores the history of Chess Records and the birth of rock 'n' roll

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Pioneers Muddy Waters (David Oyelowo) and Leonard Chess (Alessandro Nivola) in Who Do You Love.

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I think there’s a large audience of people who discover rock ’n’ roll and want to know where it came from, and they always end up with Chess Records. There were so many of those electric blues artists that influenced rock ’n’ roll, the Beatles, Rolling Stones. I mean, the Rolling Stones got their name from a Muddy Waters song. And I think that’s really the catalyst.

In both movies there is different emphasis on certain artists: Willie Dixon in Who Do You Love, and Chuck Berry in Cadillac Records. Who to you is most deserving of recognition?

Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Etta James. They were really the seminal Chess Artists. Muddy Waters was the king of the electric delta blues, Chuck Berry [was] the Beethoven of rock ’n’ roll, and Etta James took street R&B to the crossover. They did feature Bo Diddley in Who Do You Love and I think it was very well done. The reason Chuck Berry doesn’t appear in Who Do You Love is because they couldn’t reach a right financial deal with Chuck. Even with Cadillac, it was down to the wire. They had to pay him an awful lot. He’s a very eccentric, strong-willed man, and he demands a lot of control.

How about people you feel that got put on the chopping block of both films?

Well, the problem is that there is just no way to compress the Chess story into a 90-minute film. I mean, there’s Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter. We had fabulous jazz, we were the originators of black comedy and of black gospel sermons. Rev. Franklin, Aretha’s father, sold a million 78-RPM [record] sermons on Chess. The reason I think Who Do You Love is a much better film is it shows the relationship of my father and uncle, [and how they built] the label from the ground up.

I wanted to speak about the format of this screening. Currently the film is touring Jewish community centers around the country. Why that focus?

So many Jewish people came up to me and said, ‘Wow, what a great story.’ It’s the old immigrant story, coming over when they were young kids from a little town without electricity or water, not knowing any English. It’s a great American Jewish story, and that’s exactly why we’re exposing it that way.

Speaking of which, there is a racial link that is brought up in both films: white Jewish label head and black artists and feelings of exploitation that may come from that relationship.

Yes, they use that in [Cadillac Records], just like they used sex or violence. That for me, though, is the weakest part of the story. I worked at Chess every day for seven years and never saw one iota of that. Most of the artists I know have the warmest feelings for Chess. Chuck Berry told me recently that everything he accomplished was because of my father and Chess Records.

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