The movie begins with Willie Dixon, who’s played by Cedric the Entertainer, introducing himself and explaining the purpose for his voiceover as being for posterity’s sake—to preserve the history of Chess Records.
Then we see those words we’re all too familiar with: The following is based on a true story.
The year is 1941 when, according to the movie, a man from the Library of Congress comes out to Mississippi to record a man named McKinley Morganfield playing his own style of folk music.
This is true, but there’s more to the story than what we see in the movie.
Before we get to that particular moment, though, since the movie doesn’t cover his younger years, let’s take a quick moment to understand who McKinley Morganfield was.
McKinley was born on April 4th, 1913 on the far western side of Mississippi in Issaquena County. That’s right along the Mississippi River between the state of Mississippi and Louisiana.
Although he was technically born in the rural country outside of any town, the closest town is Rolling Fork, so for all intents and purposes McKinley would refer to Rolling Fork, Mississippi as his home town.
His mother died only a couple years after he was born, so McKinley’s grandmother raised him. As a child, McKinley liked to play in the swampy areas in and around the Mississippi River. Because most of these ended up being muddy puddles, McKinley’s grandmother gave him the nickname Muddy Waters—one that would stick with him his entire life.
In the movie we see a man who identifies himself as Alan Lomax, who’s played by Tony Bentley, along with John Work from Fisk University. Together, Alan and John pull up to Muddy’s small home and ask if they can record him for the Library of Congress.
These are both real people, and it was Alan Lomax along with his colleague, John Work III, who would travel around the south to capture folk music.
As a little side note, there’s another John in the picture who was archiving music. That would be Alan’s father, John Lomax, who started the project of capturing folklore and music in 1933 through a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies.
Alan, who was 18 at the time, joined his father and soon grew to be just as passionate about the collection of songs as his father. John Lomax would pass away in 1948, but not before he had earned a legacy for himself collecting thousands of songs in the U.S. and around the world.
In 1941, though, the Library of Congress and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee teamed up for a two-year field study to document the folk culture in the Mississippi Delta region.
As a part of this study, Alan Lomax and John Work III teamed up.
Some documentation puts Alan’s father John along with Alan and John Work III, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were both there for each and every recording. And Muddy Waters certainly wasn’t the only unknown Mississippi musician who was recorded for the project.
In fact, Alan was trying to record an artist named Robert Johnson. When he arrived in the region, Alan discovered Robert had passed away three years prior by the locals. They recommended he record Muddy Waters instead; so he did.
Some others Alan recorded include artists you’ve probably never heard of like Wash Dennis or artists that you’ve maybe heard their name but don’t know much about like Thaddeus Willingham, Turner Junior Johnson and Bozie Sturdivant.
Of course, no one knows much about any of those artists. While the father-son team of John and Alan Lomax would get a lot of the credit for discovering folklore throughout the Mississippi Delta region, John Work III was just as involved. Like those other artists who you’ve probably never heard of who faded into history behind Muddy Waters, collecting folklore for the joint venture between Fisk University and the Library of Congress saw John Work III fading into history behind John and Alan Lomax.
Back in the movie, after being introduced to Muddy Waters, who leaves Mississippi to go to Chicago, we’re introduced Len Chess as he’s opening Macomba Lounge in 1947.
There’s a fairly major plot point the movie is missing here.
In fact, not just a plot point but a major person. Len’s brother, Phil.
Well, technically Phil is in the movie as he’s played by Shiloh Fernandez, but hardly. Throughout most of the film we mostly see Adrien Brody’s version of Len Chess.
The true story is that in 1928, Lejzor and Fiszel Czyż moved to the U.S. with the rest of their family from a small village named Motal in what’s Belarus today. As many families did, when they arrived in the United States the Czyż family changed their name.
Lejzor became Leonard.
Fiszel became Phil.
And the family name, Czyż, became Chess.
While the movie makes it seem like Chess Records was something Len Chess did on his own, in truth it was both Len and Phil working together to build the record company.
Although, as the movie shows, they didn’t start with a record company. They also didn’t start with Macomba Lounge like the movie implies. Instead, Len and Phil Chess started their entrepreneurial careers when they bought a liquor store on the south side of Chicago, in a predominantly African-American neighborhood.
The liquor store took off, and soon they decided to take their profits and open up a night club. That night club, called the Macomba Lounge, quickly earned itself a reputation for being the place to go to listen to good music—even if it was at the risk of bumping elbows with drug dealers and prostitutes.
This isn’t mentioned in the movie at all, but as the Macomba Lounge was helping grow the Chess brothers’ bankroll, in 1947, a husband-wife combo by the name of Charles and Evelyn Aron started a small label called Aristocrat Records.
Similar to as they did with when they transitioned from the liquor store to the night club, this time the Chess brothers were looking for another investment opportunity. They invested in Aristocrat Records and became part-owners.
In the movie we see Muddy performing at the Macomba Lounge, along with a harmonica player named Little Walter. Although there’s a bit of a fight between Little Walter and a couple other musicians and Adrien Brody’s version of Len Chess tells them all to leave.
That’s fictionalized for the film, but the truth is that even though Muddy Waters performed at the Macomba Lounge, he wasn’t very popular there.
Meanwhile, for two years, Aristocrat Records was…well, quite honestly, not very successful. Most of their records were flops and things weren’t looking very good.
You see, the Chess brothers were trying to record the type of music that was flowing through their night club. It makes sense; but for whatever reason that music didn’t sell as well on records as it did in the club.
As the story goes, when Len Chess heard Muddy play for the first time, his reaction was less than impressed. He didn’t think anyone would buy Muddy’s records. Aristocrat co-owner Evelyn Aron suggested they try recording Muddy anyway, since there had been a lot of people moving from Mississippi to Chicago looking for work. She thought those folks moving North might enjoy hearing music they were used to from the South.
To offer a quick side note here, the reason for so many African-Americans moving was because of something that began in 1916 that we now refer to as the Great Migration.
It wasn’t any single event, but the Great Migration is the term for the relocation of over 6 million families that moved from the rural South to cities in the West, Midwest and Northern United States between the years of 1916 and 1970.
While it’s hard to pinpoint a single reason for the moving of millions of families, most historians agree the primary causes for the move was a combination of harsh segregation that still lingered in the South along with poor economic conditions for them. When World War I broke out in 1914, the U.S. needed more industrial workers. After the war, the need only continued and many African-American families in the South took advantage of this need to find work.
Many of those ended up on the south side of Chicago. And some of those were the musicians who played at the Macomba Lounge. A talented few went on to be recorded for Aristocrat Records.
The movie implies Muddy Waters first recorded at Chess Records, but the truth is Muddy was one of the first recording artists at Aristocrat Records. And he was immediately successful.
As a quick side note, when I say the movie doesn’t mention Aristocrat Records, I mean it’s not really a part of the plot. There is a very brief image for a couple seconds where we see an extreme closeup of Muddy Waters’ first recording, “I Can’t Be Satisfied”. At the bottom of the record, we see the words “Manufactured by the Aristocrat Record Corporation Chicago, Ill.”
So Aristocrat is in there, if only just barely.
In the movie we see the success of that first record by way of a newspaper that flashes on screen. Quite literally; I had to pause the movie to even be able to tell what it said for the split second it was up there. Anyway, in the film cites an article from September 18th, 1948 in the Chicago Defender that says Muddy’s single “I Can’t Be Satisfied” sold 3,000 copies.
While The Defender is a real newspaper, no such article exists in the historical archives for The Chicago Defender.
Regardless, even if the article didn’t exist the facts are true. Aristocrat Records pressed 3,000 copies of the single “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and every copy sold in one day.
Still, the Arons must’ve thought things were a bit too rocky because they sold the rest of the record label to the Chess brothers at the end of 1949. Then, on June 3rd, 1950, as the sole owners of Aristocrat Records, Len and Phil Chess officially renamed the company to Chess Records.
Another artist we see in the movie is Little Walter, who’s played by Columbus Short. According to the film, Little Walter plays harmonica for Muddy Waters but also records on his own. In another extremely quick flash on screen, we see the film depicting Little Walter’s song called “Juke” hitting the R&B best sellers list.
That little tidbit is also correct, although there’s a pretty significant detail the movie left out. It’s similar to when the movie omitted the facts about Aristocrat Records.
That detail is the simple fact that Little Walter’s chart-topping instrumental called “Juke” wasn’t released by Chess Records. Even though Little Walter played in Muddy’s band, his style was different. So the Chess brothers formed a subsidiary label they cleverly called Checker Records.
So the label that released Little Walter’s song, Juke, as well as the song the movie mentions later, “My Babe”, wasn’t Chess…but Checker.
There’s yet another singer we see in the film when Adrien Brody’s version of Len Chess introduces Jeffrey Wright’s Muddy Waters to a man simply known as “Wolf”. At least, that’s what he’s called in the movie. The character is billed in the film as Howlin’ Wolf, and he’s played by Eamonn Walker.
And again, this is another example of the movie taking some historically accurate details and mixing them in with some fiction to tell the tale.
The true story is that the man who recorded under the pseudonym Howlin’ Wolf was a 300-pound farmer named Chester Burnette.
Like the movie shows, Howlin’ Wolf did sing the song “Smokestack Lightnin'” for Chess Records. That was in 1956.
In the movie, it’s that song we see Eamonn Walker’s version of Howlin’ Wolf sing to a woman in the studio. The idea here seems to be that even though Muddy Waters was married, he had women on the side. And Howlin’ Wolf was keen on taking those women in somewhat of a competition with Muddy.
All of this is, well, we don’t know.
Some historians say Muddy Waters was married in 1932 to a woman named Mabel Berry who would end up leaving Muddy after he fathered a child with another woman in 1935. That’d lend some credence to the possibility that Muddy was less than faithful to his wife—or wives.
But we just don’t know.
Most historians say Muddy Waters was married at least twice. Some historians say three, including Mabel. Yet other historians say four times, including a woman named Sallie Ann.
During this time, most historians also agree Muddy Waters had at least five children. Again, maybe there’s more we don’t know about. Maybe not. We don’t know.
So as you can probably guess, most of the personal life between Muddy and his wife that we see in Cadillac Records was made up for the film.
Of what we do know, though, the movie correctly has a woman named Geneva as Muddy’s wife. We do know that Geneva Wade was one of Muddy’s wives. In the film she’s portrayed by the talented Gabrielle Union.
We also know that, even if Muddy had other wives before Geneva, she was the longest.
Speaking of love and personal lives, in the movie we see a budding romance between Adrien Brody’s version of Len Chess and Beyonce Knowles’ character, Etta James.
All of that is made up for the film.
In fact, Len’s son, Marshall, was asked about the connection between Len and Etta we saw on screen. The interviewer asked if Len and his wife, Revetta Chess, really made up after the love affair between Len and Etta.
Marshall’s response was to roll his eyes and explain that no, they didn’t make up—because there was no affair. So there was no need to make up. In a different interview, Marshall explained more. Apparently Marshall had asked the real Etta James himself. She said that Len had kissed her once…on the cheek.
As the movie continues to introduce artists, we meet yet another real character. This is Mos Def’s version of Chuck Berry, who’s new style of music has taken over as the hip new thing. Periodically we see Muddy asking Len for money, implying Muddy isn’t the rich rock star Chuck Berry is.
I feel as if I should give a blanket statement that the details in this movie are all made up—however, as we’ve seen with some of the other facts, the gist is there.
The truth is that Muddy Waters never made much money off of his music. He made enough to live a comfortable life, but he was never crazy rich like many of the popular musicians are these days.
By comparison, the real Chuck Berry passed away only a couple months ago on March 18th, 2017. When he did, he had an estimated net worth of about $19 million. Still hardly the crazy rich like many other musicians these days, but certainly enough to live a good life.
Oh, and for a brief moment in the film we see Keith Richards and The Rolling Stones come to Chess Records. They say they named their band after one of Muddy’s songs.
The Rolling Stones were formed when Keith Richards and Mick Jagger formed a bond over their shared love of Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry records. In their early days, they played covers of Muddy, Chuck and Howlin’ Wolf. Their name came about when one of the band leaders, Brian Jones, was on the phone with a local newspaper. They asked for their band name, which the group hadn’t even thought of yet, and in a hurry Brian looked around his room. He saw a Muddy Waters record on the floor with the track “Rollin’ Stone” and the rest, as they say, is history.
Back in the movie, there’s a tragic moment when Columbus Short’s version of Little Walter’s life declines through alcohol abuse, ending in a very unnecessary fight. He manages to stumbles into Gabrielle Union’s version of Geneva’s arms before dying.
The specifics were fictionalized here, but the general idea is pretty accurate. Unfortunately, as the 1960s came around, Little Walter began to slip further and further into alcoholism. He did manage to tour in Europe with The Rolling Stones in 1964, something the movie doesn’t show, but that was the beginning of the end for Little Walter’s career. Thanks to what many historians believe was due to his increasing addiction to alcohol, Little Walter’s talent just wasn’t what it once was.
We don’t know the specifics of what happened exactly, but we know he was involved in a street fight in 1968. Like the movie shows, it was this street fight that would take his life as he succumbed to the head injuries he suffered during the fight. Little Walter was only 37 years old when he passed.
As the movie comes to an end, we see Len Chess selling off Chess Records. When he does, he drives away from the building and has a heart attack, dying in his car just feet away from the studio.
That’s not true.
The Chess brothers did sell Chess Records to another record company called General Recorded Tape, or GRT, for about $6.5 million dollars along with around 20,000 shares of GRT stock. Sadly, just a couple months later, Len passed away.
Even though Phil was still alive, the loss of Len was a massive blow to the record company. Whether it was because of the new owners at GRT calling the shots, the passing of one of the driving forces behind Chess Records in Len Chess, or some combination of those two things, there was a significant decline in the quality of music being created at Chess Records after Len’s death.
Within six years of Len’s passing, Chess Records was nearly defunct and GRT was disassembling its assets and personnel. In August of 1975, the now-struggling GRT was going under as well and they sold off what they could of Chess Records to another company called All Platinum Records. After this, the Chess Records building in Chicago was sold and the new owners demolished the building, including a quarter of a million records that were still inside.
While the movie doesn’t mention this at all since it doesn’t really include Phil much, it was just a few months ago, on October 18th, 2016 when Phil Chess passed away.
As the movie comes to a close, we see a list of talented individuals from Chess Records who are now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There’s a total of seven listed: Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, Chuck Berry, Little Walter, Leonard Chess and, of course, Muddy Waters.
All of that is true. It’s also true that Phil Chess, at least as of this recording, hasn’t been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while his brother Len was. Maybe that’s why the filmmakers decided to focus more on Len than Phil.
Today, if you buy music from any of the great musicians who recorded on Chess Records, they’ll be through the Music Corporation of America, or MCA, as they hold the masters to the back catalog from Chess Records.
At the very end, the movie uses text on the screen to explain what happened to the real people that the characters in the film were based upon. And while those characters weren’t entirely realistic in the movie, the text at the end is also a little iffy on its historical accuracy.
Like the movie says, Muddy Waters passed away in 1983. April 30th, 1983 to be precise. And like the movie correctly states, that’s ten years after Geneva died. She passed away from cancer on March 15th, 1973. While we don’t know if Muddy was entirely faithful to Geneva throughout his lifetime, they are laying beside each other for the rest of time. I’ll put a link to a photo of their tombstones laying side by side with each other in the show notes if you want to see them.
As for Howlin’ Wolf, he passed away on January 10th, 1976. The movie claims that blues legend Eric Clapton paid for his tombstone. That’s something many historians agree with, and yet others debate. Some say it was Howlin’ Wolf’s widow who paid for it.
So there’s some debate about that. There’s not a lot of documentation about it, and it’s not something Eric Clapton has come out to clarify. If he did do it, he did it in private and to honor the legend of Chester Arthur Burnett—Howlin’ Wolf’s real name—an artist that Eric Clapton had the honor of recording with early in his own blues career.
Even if Eric Clapton didn’t, one thing we know about the Wolf was that even though he made a decent sum of money throughout his career, he didn’t live lavishly. Instead, he was modest and chose to pay his band well.
According to the movie, Etta James won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 and is still performing throughout the world.
That is not true. Etta James did win a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, but according to the Grammy’s official site it was in 2003, not 2002. So while I realize that awards often are for the year before, this was a Lifetime Achievement Award and it was given to Etta in 2003.
And while it was accurate when the movie was released in 2008, as of this recording, Etta James is no longer performing around the world.
She died on January 20th, 2012, just five days before her 73rd birthday.
After this, the text on screen in the movie says Chuck Berry was successful in suing The Beach Boys for their song, Surfin’ USA, claiming it ripped off of Chuck Berry’s song Sweet Little Sixteen.
That is very true. In a recent interview, The Beach Boys’ singer Brian Wilson admitted, “I just took Sweet Little Sixteen and rewrote it into something of our own.”
As a result of the lawsuit, Chuck Berry got writing credit and royalties. Oh, and something the movie doesn’t mention is that Chuck Berry’s publisher also sued The Beatles for ripping off one of Chuck’s songs, You Can’t Catch Me in The Beatles’ tune, Come Together.
John Lennon agreed to settle out of court for that one.
That’s not the last lawsuit. The final bit of text on screen in Cadillac Records says that Wille [sic] Dixon sued Led Zeppelin for ripping off one of his songs.
As a quick little side note here, the movie has a typo—they spell his name Wille instead of Willie.
But that bit about Led Zeppelin plagiarizing one of Willie Dixon’s songs is true. The song from Led Zeppelin was Whole Lotta Love, which was released in 1969. Seven years earlier, Willie Dixon had written the lyrics to a song that Muddy Waters sang called You Need Love. For copyright reasons of course, I can’t include those here but if you check out the lyrics to those two songs, you’ll see they’re quite similar.
Close enough that Dixon won the case and the Led Zeppelin song now has to have Willie Dixon included in the credits for writing the song. Despite this, according to Willie’s daughter, Shirley, he never saw much monetary gain. According to Shirley, “there was no significant money to Willie from record sales. He went to his grave feeling that he was not represented properly.”