1960 Popular Music: Chess and Motown Records

In this review of popular music in 1960 we focus on two labels that produced some of the best music by black musicians that year. The first is Chess Records, a decade in existence and renowned for its brand of Chicago blues. The second is Motown Records, a fledgling label just before hitting the big time with its first bona fide hits.

In 1959 Willie Dixon came back to work for Chess Records after a few years working as talent scout, producer, arranger, songwriter and bassist with Cobra Records. Chess has recently moved to their new location at 2120 South Michigan Avenue, now a legendary street address immortalized as the title of a Rolling Stones instrumental. One of Dixon’s main collaborations after returning was with blues singer Howlin’ Wolf, the two producing some of the genre’s classic and most-covered tunes.

Willie Dixon in the backyard of Muddy Waters’ house, Westmont, Illinois, 1981 (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

6 feet 3 inches tall and close to weighing 300 pounds, Howlin’ Wolf was an intimidating figure. But physic aside, it was his personality that made it difficult for Dixon to work with him. Dixon remembers: “Most of the guys tried to cooperate in the recording studio because they wanted to record but Howlin’ Wolf was pretty rough to deal with. It required a lot of diplomacy working with him. He always felt everything was going the wrong direction and he’d try all kinds of angles.” Like many old-school blues men, Howlin’ Wolf was not a schooled musician and Dixon had to spend many hours and takes in the studio to teach him the songs he wrote for him. Dixon faced other difficulties with lyrics: “Wolf, you can’t give him too many words, because he gets ’em all jumbled up. And if he gets ’em right, he still ain’t gonna get the right meaning.” Dixon had to apply what he called ‘backward-psychology’ in his dealings with Wolf: “Every once in a while he’d mention the fact, ‘Hey, man, you wrote that for Muddy [Waters]. How come you won’t write me one like that?’ But when you write one for him he wouldn’t like it. And then I found out that all I could do was tell him, ‘Now here’s one I wrote for Muddy, man.’ ‘Yeah, man, let me hear it. Yeah, that’s the one for me.’ And so, I’d just let him have it.”

Howlin’ Wolf

In June of 1960 Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf went into the studio to record for the second time since Dixon came back to Chess. That session would go down as one of the most important in modern blues history, yielding two songs that became staple blues rock tunes by big time groups during the following decade. Both songs were written by Willie Dixon.

The first was made famous in 1967 by The Doors on their debut self-titled album. Dixon explains the meaning of the title: “When the front door man goes out the front door someone else could come in the back door. And this is the kind of a phrase they use in the South a lot of times. The back door man can get more out of the back than you can in the front.” If you did not guess it already, the song is ‘Back Door Man’. Dixon had no trouble teaching that one to Howlin’ Wolf, who gave the Southern expression of the title the perfect interpretation. Dixon: “Howlin’ Wolf had the type of delivery that could express the concept real well – and then he knew exactly what I was talking about. That’s why I think he put so much emphasis in it. He might have had some experience of that type.”

The last song recorded in that June session is another classic, this one becoming a huge hit for Cream on their album Fresh Cream in 1966. ‘Spoonful’ raised a number of eye brows on its release, with its perplexing lyrics being interpreted forward, backward and all other directions. Dixon tried to set it straight: “The idea of ‘Spoonful’ was that it doesn’t take a large quantity of anything to be good. If you have a little money when you need it, you’re right there in the right spot, that’ll buy you a whole lot. If a doctor give you less than a spoonful of some kind of medicine that can kill you, he can give you less than a spoonful of another that will make you well. People who think ‘Spoonful’ was about heroin are mostly people with heroin ideas”.

Musicians on that session included guitarists Hubert Sumlin and Freddie Robinson, pianist Otis Spann, Fred Below on drums and Dixon on the double-bass. When Howlin’ Wolf was asked years later about kids doing his songs, he replied, “Well I’ll tell you, there’s nothing wrong with that. I want all of them to make my records, because I gets money out of it, see.” Wise man.

Both songs were later included in a compilation record Chess released in 1962 simply titled ‘Howlin’ Wolf’, with another classic Willie Dixon song, ‘The Red Rooster’.

While Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf represented the old guard at Chess, a new recruit released the label’s best-selling album in 1960.

One night late in 1959 Etta James took a bus from St. Louis to Chicago. Since her #1 R&B hit ‘The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry)’, her recording career with the Modern and Kent labels proved lukewarm at best. The rest of the singles she released since that debut single in 1955 barely made a dent in the charts and she did not have a sole LP to her name. Her destination in Chicago was 2120 South Michigan Avenue. Since 1950 Chess has released a consistent stream of R&B and blues singles, many of them becoming classics of the genres. Leonard Chess met no resistance when buying her contract from Modern Records and wasted no time putting Etta James in the recording studio.

Chess Records co-founder Phil Chess, left, R&B singer Etta James and record producer Ralph Bass at Chess Records Studios in 1960 in Chicago

The singer’s luck changed quickly with Chess. Her first single for the label, a duet with Harvey Fuqua (of the Moonglows) titled ‘If I Can’t Have You’, was a vast improvement on anything she recorded in the last three years, climbing to #6 on Billboard’s R&B chart and for the first time crossed over to the mainstream Top 100 chart. Chess knew they had the making of a star on their hands. Jack Tracy, Artists and Repertoire Director at Chess’ sub label Argo said: “I don’t think anybody with any kind of ears could have mistaken her talent. You hear it once—oh yeah, OK…you had to listen.” Another recording session followed, yielding an even bigger hit, ‘All I Could Do Was Cry’, this one reaching higher on both charts. The song was written by Billy Davis and Berry Gordy (more about that guy later in the article) who originally proposed it to Aretha Franklin and then to her sister Erma, both declining. Here is Etta James performing the song. It is easy to understand Jack Tracy’s enthusiasm after he heard her once:

Leonard Chess made a wise move when he invited Riley Hampton to write the orchestral arrangements for the sessions with Etta James. The arranger was well known in Chicago since coming to the city with Fletcher Henderson’s band. Nadine Cohodas writes in her excellent book ‘Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records’: “Hampton didn’t know who Etta James was until he went over to Michigan Avenue to work on the first session early in January 1960. He sat down with her at the piano, asked her to sing a few notes, found her key, and then went home to write the arrangements. He was moved from the first note. It made the task that much easier, deciding how the instruments—horns, violins, violas, a cello—should be framed around her sound. Hampton tried to find a mental picture to illustrate the story of the songs they were going to record, hearing James’ voice in his head as the narrator.”

Etta James

There is no better showcase for the fantastic combination of Etta James’ voice and Riley Hampton’s arrangements than the classic title track from her album ‘At Last’. Back when she was a child singing in church her choir director Professor James Earl Hines told her to sing from the stomach, not the throat: “Don’t back off those notes, Jamesetta. Attack ’em, grab ’em, claim those suckers, sing ’em like you own ’em.” That she did, recording her best-known song, a big money-maker for the Chess brothers and a favorite of the music trade papers who described it “a real triumph for Miss James”.

Many folks think that Etta James was first to perform the song, but it was written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for the 1941 musical film ‘Sun Valley Serenade’. It was performed in that movie as an instrumental by Glenn Miller and his orchestra and later appeared in another movie, ‘Orchestra Wives’, this time with lyrics. Glenn Miller’s recording entered the Billboard Pop 100 in August 1942, peaking at #2, and the song remained a popular choice in his live performances during World War II.

Etta James’ recording of the song did not climb farther than #47 on Billboard’s Top 100 Chart in 1961, but hers is undoubtedly the definitive version. Many wedded couples have danced to that song on their happiest of days.

Chess was not the only small independent label to score a big hit in 1960. That was the year Motown Records broke into the mainstream, starting its phenomenal run of hits through the 1960s and beyond. By the second half of 1960 Motown was able to place a number of minor hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, but none of them made it into the top 20: Marv Johnson’s ‘Come to Me’ (#30), The Miracles’ ‘Bad Girl’ (#93) and ‘Way Over There’ (#94) and Marry Wells’ ‘Bye Bye Baby’ (#45).

Berry Gordy

The closest Motown was able to get to the top 20 pop chart in the first half of 1960 was with a song penned by its founder, Berry Gordy. In the very early days of the label Gordy, like many other small independent label executives, was constantly strapped for money. One day in 1959 he came up with a new tune that summed up his feelings without mincing words, the chorus repeating the phrase ‘Money, that’s what I want.’ Motown’s receptionist Janie Bradford heard Gordy working on the song and contributed the line ‘Your love gives me such a thrill, but your love don’t pay my bills, gimme some money, baby.’ A serendipitous moment for Miss Bradford, for the benevolent label head gave her half the song’s credit for that inspired line. That was the start of a songwriting career for Bradford. Her songs were since performed by the likes of the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Phil Collins.

Barrett Strong

The song was given to Barrett Strong, one of the label’s first artists. Gordy remembers: “He slid next to me on the piano bench, playing away and joining me singing the chorus—uninvited. This was uncharacteristic of Barrett, who always seemed quiet, shy and a little in awe of me. But not this day. His voice was soulful and passionate. I didn’t have to think twice about who I could get to sing my song. Barrett was it.”

The song was aptly titled ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ and was the first to be recorded at Gordy’s newly-owned studio. Unlike the budget-conscious recording sessions that Motown practiced in later years, it took forty attempts to nail the chosen take. It is notable for a piano riff played by Barrett Strong, the tambourine (Brian Holland) and the drum pattern. Gordy: “Right before the first verse came in, I remember jerking my hands wide cutting the piano and tambourine and pointing to the drummer, a guy by the name of Benny Benjamin. Wanting something different, I settled for a vision of Indians dancing around a teepee and had him do a heavy tom-tom beat.” The same Benny Benjamin would go on to play on many classic Motown songs including ‘Do You Love Me’ by The Contours ,‘Get Ready’ and ‘My Girl’ by The Temptations and ‘Uptight (Everything’s Alright)’ by Stevie Wonder.

The song was originally released in August 1959 and again in June 1960, reaching #2 on the R&B chart and as high as #23 on the pop chart, making it Motown’s best cross-over hit yet. It only took a few more months for the label to score a truly national hit, when it tried it one more time with the Miracles.

The Miracles

One day in the fall of 1960 Berry Gordy was sitting at the piano in the studio, working on a tune. Less known for his songwriting credits than his work as music executive and producer, Gordy was nonetheless quite an accomplished composer of popular songs. Early notable hits by him include Jackie Wilson’s ‘Reet Petite’ and ‘Lonely Teardrops’ and the aforementioned ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’. As Gordy was noodling along on the piano who comes into the studio but Smokey Robinson. Since they first met three years prior, Robinson was in the habit of bringing his newly written songs to Gordy. This time he brought a song about a mother giving her son a life lesson – ‘Don’t be sold on the very first one’, because ‘The women come and the women gonna go’, so – ‘You better shop around’. Gordy, a man known for his keen eye on money maker hits, immediately recognized the potential of this song.

Berry Gordy told Smokey Robinson that this is going to be a big hit for the Miracles, but the singer was reluctant to perform the song. After some crafty arm twisting by Gordy, the band went into the studio to record ‘Shop Around’ but the results were less than satisfactory. Gordy quickly realized that the song in its original version was too slow and bluesy to catch the ear of a pop music fan. He woke the band up in the middle of the night and ushered them into the recording studio for another try. The piano player did not show up so Berry Gordy took over the instrument, playing the tune at a much faster tempo. The result – #1 on the R&B chart and #2 on the ever-important pop chart, meaning the song crossed over to the lucrative white audience. And of course – Motown’s first-ever million seller.

The original Miracles including Bobby Rogers, Pete Moore, Ronnie White, Smokey Robinson and Claudette Robinson pose with Berry Gordy

The tireless label head had still one more achievement to conquer – a Hot 100 number 1, but he had to wait one more year for that… to be covered in a future article.

To read more about artists covered in this article, I recommend the following books:

Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records, by Nadine Cohodas

Willie Dixon: Preacher of the Blues, by Mitsutoshi Inaba

To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown: An Autobiography, by Berry Gordy

Categories: A Year in Music

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2 replies »

  1. I have been involved in r&b music over 40 years and play r&b and DooWop on my radio show. My favorite miracles song is I Cry which was Their second release and released on End Records

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