Agents Of Change


Graduating from their father’s Chicago junk business, they began running bars and clubs around Maxwell Street. Their prize was the Macomba, a comparatively classy joint where the likes of Billy Eckstine and Ella Fitzgerald would sometimes appear. The talent they saw in their’clubs gave the brothers another idea. They bought a record label called Aristocrat and began recording records and selling them out of the back of their car. Before long, college kids and other white suburbanites were discovering the music popular on Maxwell Street.

The Chess brothers made records that helped transport African-American culture, especially its language and music, to its central place in American culture, so that decades later whites across the nation would dance to beats from the Delta and use words like funky without thinking of their origins. The Chesses helped turn the blues into rock ’n’ roll and set off a musical revolution. They gave us Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Elmore James, and Chuck Berry. As the producer Jerry Wexler put it, “they created the single finest archive of the blues in existence.” When that archive found its way to England, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and others listened to it and then beamed it back to America in transmuted form.

The Chesses influenced jazz: Muddy Waters’s stop time seeped into jazz riffs and the sound track of the 1955 film The Man with the Golden Arm . And they joined in pioneering the sound called doo-wop. In 1951 they released what is arguably the first rock ’n’ roll song, Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket ‘88.’”

They were not graceful personalities. They were never overly sensitive to niceties of contracts and royalties, and they knew that to get their records played on national radio, they needed the services of the legendary mobconnected promoter Morris Levy. They even listed payola as an expense on their tax returns.

Muddy Waters was working as a Chicago venetian-blinds deliveryman when they signed him on in 1948. Waters had been recorded in Mississippi by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress, but now he was playing a more urban blues. His arrival in the Chesses’ usually rented studios began the electrification and urbanization of the blues and the birth of rock ’n’ roll. For the Chess brothers, Waters recorded “Rollin’ Stone” in 1950, the song that gave the culture a phrase and a rock group and magazine their names. When Waters appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 4, 1960, the crossover of the blues to white audiences was symbolically complete.

The Chess brothers were widely viewed in the music business as superstitious, crude, and crass. Leonard Chess was famous for answering the telephone and addressing even good friends with a genial obscenity. He claimed to care not for the blues but only for the green they produced. But he knew what he liked. At one recording session he shoved a drummer aside and picked up the sticks himself.


The Chess brothers’ story is one in which greed and inspiration swirled together in a characteristically American pot where the ingredients did not so much melt as alloy in a metallurgical sense: steel guitar, electricity, and vinyl transmuted into a wholly new cultural substance. By the early 1960s the major record labels were discovering the Chess brothers’ market, and the era of the small operation was fading. After Leonard died, in 1969, the company was sold. But the recordings keep coming back to us, imported from Japan and Europe or reissued here by MCA. And the music the Chess brothers pursued for commerce has become utterly commercial itself. Today Muddy Waters’s songs show up in commercials for Timberland boots, Diet Coke, and the Gap.


Before 1964, when Luther Terry issued his famous report on smoking, few people knew that there was such a thing as the United States Surgeon General, and fewer still knew his name. Today everyone knows of the Surgeon General, but who can name the one behind the Surgeon General’s report?

That report pushed government’s involvement in policing the health of its citizens to a new level, and it did so by attacking America’s first cash crop. The American economy was literally founded on the hogsheads of tobacco that departed Jamestown. And the plant gave the South its second birth after the Civil War, thanks to the cigarette and the cigarette-rolling machines that James B. Duke put into operation.

By 1964 smoking had long been an essential feature of American life, coloring Hollywood’s vision of us, sustaining us through the Depression and World War II (“if you’ve got ‘em, smoke ‘em . . . Lucky Strike Green has gone to war”). To be sure, the tobacco companies, seeing concern growing, had pushed filters, but they did so by brilliantly grafting tobacco to essential American tropes through such images as the Marlboro man.

For the Marlboro man or the Camel to draw the fire of the Surgeon General seemed at first the height of absurdity. His office was one of those odd nooks and corners of government that had quietly grown huge—to almost twenty thousand people by the time Terry became Surgeon General. Established in 1798 as the United States Marine Hospital Service, it had become the Public Health Service in 1912 and had been made part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1953.