Sun vs Chess Jam at Red Light Cafe – Part II

Sun and Chess Records and the American Musical Experience

As the group’s Resident Armchair Musicologist™, I put on a slick suit and tie (always appropriate if you are playing Muddy Waters) and filled in the time between set changes by giving some short talks about the history of this hyper-seminal time and place in American music history.

We musicians sigh and put a hand to our breast when we think about how difficult it is to get today’s music listeners to appreciate Sun and Chess and what they did in the 1950s. It was a musical result of what the historians call the African-American Great Migration. After World War I, crop failure and flooding and repressive Jim Crow laws saw hundreds of thousands of African-Americans leaving the South, and for our musical purposes the lower Mississippi Delta in particular, and heading up the rivers to manufacturing centers including Chicago. They left their sharecropping agrarian existence and, up North, took factory jobs and got a better chance of supporting their families and living with dignity. Of course African-American musicians took their music with them.

As African-American musicians from down Mississippi way poured North, the field-holler of the acoustic Delta blues, usually one man and a battered guitar, became the electric Chicago blues, amplified voices backed by bands with electric guitars, drums, piano, horns, harmonica, and the upright bass. In the 1950s there arose two poles along this musical axis, two ends of a pipeline of musical talent: Sun Records in Memphis and Chess Records in Chicago.

Chicago Joe Jones
Chicago Joe Jones

The talent and musical expression came from the heart and soul of Black musicians.  As a sign of the racially troubled nation, for anybody to have a chance to hear this music required the multi-headed, multi-racial creature known as the music industry.  This applied to not only record labels but also radio. Circa 1948, industry trade bible Billboard magazine stopped referring to music marketed to African-Americans as “race records” and coined the term “rhythm and blues” (R&B). A loose network of radio stations in Memphis, Nashville and Atlanta began to broadcast Black artists on programs aimed at White audiences. Sam Philips, and Anglo-American from Florence, Alabama and a live-concert audio engineer for a leading Memphis radio station, had a dream: if he could find and record unique Black talent playing the best of the blues, it could reach White audiences, change peoples’ attitudes, strike a small but significant blow against segregation. He believed this could help change our society. He forged alliances with Chess, run by two brothers who were immigrants from Poland. Chess was already recording electric blues, doo-wop and R&B artists in Chicago; they contracted with Phillip’s recording studio in Memphis to create a musical pipeline that made the first recordings of budding giants like B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Ike Turner.

Stephen Carusos on harmonica
Stephen Carusos on harmonica; Gray Sartin on vocal and guitar

Phase II for Sam Phillips was to form his own Sun Records label with a second goal: get the rapidly-evolving music clear across the color line in a Hail-Mary pass by finding young, unrecorded white musicians who could authentically interpret Black blues music yet add their own appeal while blending in influences from hillbilly and country music. He was adamant that this was not to exploit or misappropriate Black talent – the goal was to get people on both sides of the tracks to appreciate what African-American musical artistry had to offer. At any rate, unlike the Chess brothers up north, Sam Phillips never had the financial wherewithal to exploit anybody much; constantly on the edge of insolvency, he was truly in it for the art. So Sam Phillips found and launched the careers of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other White acts that wrote their own material too, including Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.

Meanwhile Ohio radio personality (we used to call them DJs, kids) Alan Freed had coined a new term: rock and roll. Chess Records picked up the pipeline and furthered the careers of black blues and nascient rock and rollers named Muddy Waters (born McKinley Morganfield in Clarksdale, Mississippi), Howlin’ Wolf (born Chester Burnett, two hours east of Clarksdale) and more cats drawn like magnets to the True North of Chicago: Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley (Ellas Bates, from a town in Mississippi not far from New Orleans), and the list went on. Outstanding instrumentalists and songwriters Willie Dixon, on upright bass, Little Walter (Jacobs) on the amplified harmonica, and Otis Spann on piano threw in the boogie-woogie.

Sun vs Chess Jam at Red Light Cafe
Vince Alexander, harmonica; Mark Michelson, vocal

Now of course the music industry was exploitive. It had to be; it was unavoidable. You can debate the important issue of cultural misappropriation (and it’s really trendy these days, isn’t it?) But we musicians, all of us, firmly believe that however it happened, the result is that all people of this country became able to appreciate the artistry of all the musicians. A contribution was made to the struggle for civil rights and equality. And I cannot overstate this enough: we all had fun doing it.

Before long, between the artists on Sun and Chess, fitfully and not without overcoming considerable resistance, something that had never happened before was taking place all over America: black music fans and white music fans were now standing together, mingled, dancing together, in the same auditoriums to listen to these bands play. And everybody rocked.

I wish I had words to describe the sheer joy of playing this music in front of an audience – a way of letting you smell that sweat. Words like “visceral” don’t cut it. Get yourself out and hear a band play this music, and try to be color-blind about the musicians’ ethnicities. All of us know how to feel it, how to express it. For our generation and era, there is nothing else that brings all of us together in musical expression the way that early Sun and Chess Records music does.

View more photos, commentary and music in Part I of the Sun Records vs Chess Records Open Mic Jam at Red Light Cafe.

Come Jam with the Allstars

If you are a musician, you can jam with the BadAsh Allstars. Decatur drummer and bass player Adrian Ash (“BadAsh”, for better or worse) has been holding monthly jam sessions on a circuit of jazz clubs around Atlanta for three years, rotating through the Red Light Cafe in Midtown, Steve’s Live Music in Sandy Springs just north of the Perimeter, and the Velvet Note in Alpharetta.

BadAsh Allstar Team
BadAsh Allstar Team

All the Jams are on a theme: past shows have been based on the music of Steely Dan, 60s jazz, the Grateful Dead, Elton John, Billy Joel, classic rock lead guitar, Led Zeppelin, Motown and Stax, 80s synth pop, Pink Floyd, and more. Events can involve as many as 35 musicians getting up and off the stage, playing for four hours.

The aim is to perform professional-caliber tribute shows, not just to get together a bunch of musicians who want to play for each other. Each Jam is anchored by a house band of professional jazzers who provide the platform and the backline equipment for other musicians who join in.

Any instrumentalist or singer with sufficient ability and knowledge can apply. It helps if you are on Facebook. Reach out to Adrian Ash. The BadAsh Allstar Team Facebook page. Logistics for each show are arranged through a sign-up sheet on Google Docs, and using Facebook Messenger chat.

Adrian Ash
Adrian Ash, bandleader


Upcoming tribute jams on this circuit, including some affiliated events put on by other groups, are:

View more photos, commentary and music in Part I of the Sun Records vs Chess Records Open Mic Jam at Red Light Cafe.

Wheat Williams Written by:

Wheat Williams’ grandparents moved to Decatur, Georgia in 1920. Wheat completed his Bachelor of Music degree at Georgia State University following ten years on the music scene in Nashville, Tennessee. He has been a freelance music journalist for national print magazines going back to 1987, covering music technology, classical, rock, country, and jazz. For awhile he wrote publicity and marketing materials for Sony Music Nashville. Despite all this, he’s always been a traditional church choral musician and light opera singer. He was a founding consultant and volunteer with the Bob Moog Foundation. For three years he was the business manager for the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra. His blog, “Music and Beyond”, is at