Cadillac Records: What LIES Beneath

December 17, 2008

I grew up on blues music. My grandmother who just passed was a lover of BB King, Albert King, Bobby Blue Bland, and a number of other musicians. I have a subscription to eMusic.com, really for the sole purpose of having access to their amazing Blues and Jazz catalog–I can download 65 songs for about $15 bucks a month. I have read the auto/biographies of music legends Patti Labelle, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Billy Strayhorn, Chaka Khan, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. And of course, Etta James’ Rage To Survive . Needless to say I knew a little something about James, and Chess Records before going to see Cadillac Records this weekend, and Beyonce’s performance of the living Blues and Rock legend.

The distortions and out-right lies that I detected in Cadillac Records from a book I read at least 5 years ago, has made me promise to go back and read books about the other musicians at Chess records also featured in the film, Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer) and Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright). But here’s what I know, that you need to know before seeing this film and you get fooled into thinking this represents history in some way:

  1. ETTA JAMES AND LEONARD CHESS NEVER HAD A SEXUAL RELATIONSHIP. PERIOD. Etta James and Leonard Chess’ surviving son have both come forward and denied that aspect of the movie.
  2. Leonard Chess did not set up the meeting between Etta and the man she thinks is her father, Minnesota Fats. That meeting happened in the 1980 (if not 1990s) at a seniors home fats was residing (not in a restaurant). Leonard Chess died in 1959, a good 30 years before the film sets this up.

The effect of these two lies? To portray Etta’s character in the film, as a tragic mulatto. The way the character is written for the movie, Etta’s abandonment by her real father (who I don’t think she even knew was her father until AFTER her years at Chess) leads her to searching for a white father figure she thinks she finds in Chess. This also supposed to be the cause of her drug addiction and the primary motivation for her “tough girl” act. But I guess Beyonce as Executive Producer (or the studio or screenwriters or whomever) couldn’t stand to be in a movie and not be seen as the object of attraction, or that a white man was not the focus of the film and everyone in it.

The other performances I think are really great– Gabrielle Union in particular is a pleasant surprise. She actually shows that she has more acting range than the roles she’s usually given. And I also like the idea of a film that focuses not on a sole celebrity’s story, but on the significance of a group of musicians related through a label, and the work that they created together, but this film doesn’t accomplish that.

Want some real Etta? Check out my favorite Etta recording, a live version of her song I’d Rather Go Blind, with BB King on guitar and New Orleans legend Dr. John on joining on vocals.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FuUjtFtXA2Y&feature=related]

11 Responses to Cadillac Records: What LIES Beneath

  1. Henry says:

    You write about “Etta James and Leonard Chess’ surviving son…” How can they have a son without having had a sexual relationship? Think about it.

    • Etta James. And Chess’ surviving son, as two separate entities.

      • mario says:

        I feel every one needs to be quite,even Mr.chesss son,no one will ever know,there are things people do take to their grave so others want get hurt,only etta and mr. chess know.And so what if they did in the music business alot of that was going on back then,blacks and whites dated back then it was kept quite,believe me some one knows,people then knew how to keep a secret.

        • mario says:

          about a son know one will ever know that either,do yoy really think if it was true would etta tell,it could have ruied her career,let’s stop thinking we know everything about poeple business,everything is not in a book,stop and think some time.By yhe it’s their life .end of story

  2. L says:

    I did see the movie, and it’s easy to take everything you saw there as the truth. Thank you for the insights. What I got from it was exposure to a new genre for me, the blues. It really opened my eyes to these historical artists. I’m embarrassed to admit I thought Chuck Berry was white …

  3. Andre L. says:

    Just read your blog entry to my dad and sis. They both thank you for dropping the truth (and reading the children.. lol)!

  4. Sahra says:

    Thanks for the insight. I just saw the movie and while I think the acting dimensions of the characters were great; I sensed a lot of BS in the story line. Its clear that the CHess character was set out to be the Great White Hope throughout the whole movie. When the reality was he was just another white exec ripping off black artist. Thats pretty cynical but I think its closer to the truth.

  5. Stacy says:

    Thanks for the clarification….it reminds me of the reaction I had after seeing “last King of Scotland” The common thread in all these twisted facts seem to subliminally convince the unquestining mindless masses (U.S. and overseas) to submit to the the myth of “the White man’s burden” to care for the colored masses.

    After my own “light” research, very basic Wiki search, and second grade math application, it seemed that Etta was married during her time at “Chess” therefore not so emotionally dependent on Mr. Chess, the portrayal was too shallow and didn’t reflect the ambiguity, complexity of Etta or her contemporaries, they all seemed too dependent on L.Chess, always “gettin’ in some mess” withe a hand out. The movie did seem odd to me. My hope is that more groundbreaking independent filmakers would emerge to create a more “honest” portrayal, as long as “HollyHood” is in charge, they are only going to serve as a conduit and support of deadly propaganda that feed the minds of our youth and oppressed peoples worldwide.

  6. rascal says:

    Leonard Chess died in 1969.

  7. Jim says:

    Movies don’t try to tell people about facts, they tell stories and stories are always distorted. But like Paul Mooney says, people believe what they see on TV. By the end of this movie I realized it had nothing to do with chess records, not even much to do with music, it was about race. That scene where Chuck Berry looks at Elvis on the news and says “well there you have it ladies and gentlemen, your new king” really says it all.

  8. Kazera says:

    A kiss or two does not equal a sexual relationship…especially in a field where emotions can transfer so keenly onto wax & one worked so closely with only a few people when laying down tracks as things were done back in the day. One must remember those were completely different times & Len was a married Jewish man…& although Ms Etta denied any sexual relationship one has to wonder if she would have denied that there was an emotional affair between the two of them.

    One must also remember that Ms Etta was so ill by the time the film came out that she didn’t have a clue who Beyonce was playing even though she was singing her famous songs.

    The truth is lost to us now, buried with those it belongs with…just enjoy the film for the work of art that it is & allow the magic of it to reach a new generation, so they can enjoy the pureness of the music…

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