One bourbon, one scotch, one beer. Chances are the average listener will go through considerably more drinks than that during this mammoth 100-tracks-on-four-discs collection, especially if it's digested in a single sitting. Not because boozy liquid lubrication is required to navigate through its content, due to any quality shortcomings. Oh no. More because every disc presents several opportunities to hoist a glass to one of the most important record labels of pop's early history.
Three numbers from John Lee Hooker represent the tip of this set's blues iceberg. Also included are cuts from Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf (1956's Smokestack Lightnin' is a given), Muddy Waters (Mannish Boy and I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man, check) and Lowell Fulson, whose Reconsider Baby was a number three hit in 1954. The label's soul selection is similarly well represented: Fontella Bass's sublime Rescue Me opens disc three, and Etta James makes five appearances. Among her efforts is I Just Want to Make Love to You, recorded in 1954 and a UK top five hit 42 years later when it was used in a soft drink commercial.
This belated success highlights a significant aspect of this release's appeal–although Chess ceased to operate in 1975, after 25 years of business, many of these songs have enjoyed leases of life far longer than anyone involved in their creative processes could have foreseen. Like Motown's, the Chess catalogue has been regularly raided by filmmakers–Chuck Berry's Johnny B Goode, recorded in 1958, featured in the 1985 movie Back to the Future (albeit as played by the character Marty McFly), and Mannish Boy has cropped up countless times on the silver screen. Chess itself was the subject of a pair of 2008 flicks, Who Do You Love and Cadillac Records.
And it's not only the cinema that has been graced by Chess sounds. The Ramsey Lewis Trio's version of The In Crowd was used by Radio 1 when Jimmy Savile was a station fixture, and numerous tracks here have achieved a certain ubiquity through cover versions, such as The Dells' Oh, What a Night and the Willie Dixon-penned Wang Dang Doodle. The latter is performed here by Koko Taylor, but it was also recorded by The Pointer Sisters and, rather less memorably, PJ Harvey.
So, although Chess is long retired from the music industry, the Chicago label's catalogue owned by Universal (their similarly packaged introductions to Motown and Sugar Hill are also available), these songs deserve a place in the collections of today's listeners. That so many are immediately recognisable is testament to their lasting appeal. The classics, clichéd though it is to say so, truly never go out of style.
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