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Sun Studio wants to help landmark Chess Records attract tourists

Chess Recording Studio 2120 South Michigan Avenue is Chicago landmark. Home legend Willie Dixmany others recorded like Muddy Waters Chuck

Chess Recording Studio, 2120 South Michigan Avenue is a Chicago landmark. Home to legend Willie Dixon and many others recorded, like Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry Do Diddley. Jacqueline Dixon, daughter of legend Willie Dixon and Executive Director in the landmark studio, Tuesday, June 20, 2011. | John H. White~Sun-Times.

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Updated: November 14, 2011 12:17AM

Howlin’ Wolf was a mountain of a man.

His voice sounded like bald tires spinning on rough gravel. Wolf (born Chester Arthur Burnett) is regarded as part of the Mt. Rushmore of Chicago’s Chess Records, along with Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Dixon. But Wolf debuted in 1952 with Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn.

“Wolf had, by any standard, the worst voice I have ever heard,” Sun Records founder Sam Phillips told the Sun-Times in 1987. “It was so bad it was magnificent. It contained all of the raw beauty that everything I had thought about in one man.”

Phillips, who died in 2003, recorded Wolf singing jump tunes as well as the two-bar, Delta guitar-driven “Come Back Home.” Wolf left the Memphis area in 1952 for Chicago after Phillips had his first commercial success in 1951 by selling Jackie Brenston’s seminal “Rocket 88’” to Chess founder Leonard Chess.

And now the spirit of Sun Records could be coming back to Chess Records.

John Schorr, longtime president of the historic Sun Records studio, has been talking with Chess’ operators about lending a hand to the struggling musical landmark at 2120 S. Michigan. Chess is owned by the Blues Heaven Foundation, created by Chess producer and songwriter WIllie Dixon. Dixon’s widow, Marie, is the president of Blues Heaven Foundation, and their daughter Jacqueline the executive director

Sun is a destination when people come to Memphis, as is the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit. Before arriving in Chicago last weekend, former Beatle Paul McCartney took a private tour of the Motown site. He touched all the pianos in legendary Studio A — although he wasn’t supposed to. He was so inspired that he included Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike” in his Detroit set.

The Beatles popularized Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” which was recorded in 1956 for Chess.

At press time McCartney had not visited the Chess landmark.

“We’re not reaching the amount of people we need to reach,” Jacqueline Dixon said. There is little foot traffic around Chess. Only hardcore Chicago music fans know of its existence.

Since a July 10 Sun-Times article about the studio, Chess has received help from more than two dozen volunteers.

The Dixons will be meeting with their alderman, Bob Fioretti (2nd), about the city’s involvement with Chess. “Things are moving forward, and a lot of positive things have happened because of the article,” Jacqueline Dixon said last week. “People have offered to help restore the studio and do public relations work. We’re very excited.”

The Chess site is on the city’s radar. A spokesman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, “The Chess Records building is an important part of the historic and cultural legacy that still survives along South Michigan Avenue, and the mayor recognizes the important role it will have as the neighborhood continues to evolve for entertainment and other uses.

“The city is committed to the preservation and expansion of its artistic legacy and will work with interested parties around the city to ensure its future.”

The Sun Studio is a successful for-profit company, while the Dixons are adamant about maintaining the non-for-profit status of Blues Heaven.

“A partnership can be done in different ways,” Schorr said from Memphis. “We never discussed a dissolution of Blues Heaven and what they’ve done. We would be an addition, bringing our expertise on site. We would open an enhanced attraction and recording studio in line with what we have built in Memphis. Making it a functional studio is a big part of the idea, if people know it is a place where magic still happens as opposed to a museum that is behind glass, dead and non-functioning.”

Chris Isaak, John Mellencamp and U2 all have recorded at Sun in recent years.

Jacqueline Dixon said, “Even if we can’t work together formally with Sun, we might get some tips on things that were successful that we can implement.”

Schorr has operated the Sun Studio for 20 years. He sought out the Dixons. He said, “We went to Chess last fall to physically meet with the Dixons and discuss our ideas.”

What did they discuss?

“I’d been to Chess before, and the business wasn’t run in a similar fashion the way we run it here,” he said. “A merge with Blues Heaven can generate an extremely large amount of money for the foundation. We’re trying to shine a light on what is overlooked in Willie Dixon’s career. Diehard fans recognize the contribution he made. But there’s a story to be told about Willie and the artists who came through there.

“Fire it up, put some nitrous oxide on it to give it a good flair and market it out to more folks.”

The Dixons would be open to a facility name change from Blues Heaven Foundation to Chess Studio, or something similar with the Chess name. Schorr asked, “What has more name recognition? Obviously Chess. Without a doubt it would benefit to change the name.”

Jacqueline Dixon also called Chess “the best kept secret in town” and admitted there is little activity around the studio where Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, the Rolling Stones and so many others recorded. Schorr said local interest is not essential.

“Memphis is the same,” he said. “Probably one-tenth of 1 percent of my business is people from Memphis. That’s not the market. With blues, Chicago is a bit more developed with all of the blues clubs. People in the city enjoy that heritage. But the fact that there are only four or five visitors at Chess on the afternoon of the Chicago Blues Festival is a little obscene. Chicago has a pretty defined tourism market, which really was the impetus for me wanting to speak with the Dixons.”

Schorr credits the City of Memphis for getting behind the music. “The Convention and Visitor’s Bureau took our moniker and what Memphis had been known for — ‘the Transportation Hub of America’ — and changed it to ‘the Birthplace of Rock ’n’ Roll and Home of the Blues.’ They’ve spent the last 20 years marketing out that theme. The mayor and city council have to enjoy that theme and recognize its attractiveness to other people.”

Earth, Wind and Fire co-founder Verdine White Jr. grew up with the magic of Chess. His brother Maurice was a Chess session drummer, and White learned bass from the late Louis Satterfield, the iconic Chess session trombonist and bassist.

“It’s not unusual that Chess would be struggling,” White said before his band’s recent stop in Chicago. “Maurice brought a lot of those Chess Records home. To the public it was just a blues label, Howlin’ Wolf and those guys. But it was a very diversified label. You had Ramsey [Lewis] with jazz, the Rotary Connection [psychedelic rock and soul], Phil Upchurch, [jazz-soul singer] Terry Collier.”

It took a few efforts for the Sun studio site to get off the ground.

“Sam Phillips never had any ownership as a museum,” Schorr said. “In the late ’70s, Sun Records opened in partnership with Grayline bus tours. Next, Graceland took it over and operated it as the Memphis Recording Service. That was ’83, ’84 until about 1987. They couldn’t do anything with it. When we moved in and bought it out, tours were given of just the studio. The other part was an Italian restaurant. When that closed we took over the rest of the building. We bought the building in 1997 and operated Sun Studio ever since. We had to brand the city in a certain musical light in order to get the word out that there was something real special about this place.”

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