Back in 2008, a fire at Universal Studios Hollywood roared through a giant, 22,000 square foot warehouse. Almost everything in the vault was destroyed, and despite initial reports, there was more in that vault than just video.
An investigation published by The New York Times Magazine reveals the vault also housed tens of thousands of master tapes of some of the most historically significant music of the 20th century. Much of that music was recorded in Chicago, under the storied blues label Chess Records.
“The loss of Chess Records master tapes, as well as the subsidiary labels like Checker and Argo, marks a huge swath not only of Chicago music history but international music history,” says Sound Opinions co-host Greg Kot. “To lose the essential recordings from that catalog is just devastating.”
Chess’ roster included artists like Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, and Little Walter. All of their master recordings and those of hundreds of others likely burned.
WBEZ’s Lisa Labuz talked with Greg Kot about why that matters.
On what a master tape is and why it’s important
Greg Kot: The master recording is the first recording of a performance and all other copies are made from that master. There is a high fidelity [recording of] a performance in a room by some of the most legendary figures in modern music and you will never get as close to being in that room as you would with that master recording. Everything else is a copy of that master recording essentially, and by that criteria alone, inferior. There was an example used in The New York Times article: Think of it as a painting. The master recording is the Mona Lisa. Everything else is a copy of the Mona Lisa.
On how technology has allowed people to hear the masters better
Kot: The recording technology [in the '50s and '60s] was way ahead of the ability to play it back and listen to it in a similarly high fidelity way, but technology’s slowly but surely catching up. We are now able to listen to these records in greater and greater detail. In other words, the technology has enabled us to listen to these recordings and hear more of what’s on those master recordings than ever before. So the fact that you’ve lost the master recording means that no matter how great the technology gets in the future, we’ll never get closer to being in that room than we were with that first recording and that’s a real loss to people who love music.
On Muddy Waters’ master tape of “Hoochie Coochie Man”
Kot: When you think about critical moments in music history, you go back to being in the room on Jan. 7,1954, when they recorded "Hoochie Coochie Man” — when Muddy Waters and his famed quintet recorded that song. This was a phenomenal combo and it is an absolutely classic performance. You know, the Rolling Stones a few years later were sitting in their flat in London with their ears pressed against the speaker of the Chess recording of this song, trying to learn A) how they got that sound, B) how can we possibly replicate this, and essentially formed the foundation of their band.
On Chuck Berry’s master tape of “Maybellene”
Kot: Now, when I think about Chess, I think the other giant besides Muddy Waters was Chuck Berry. If Muddy was the architect of urban blues, in many ways Chuck Berry was the architect of rock and roll. I don't think it even quite had a name yet when Chuck was in Chess Studios and recorded "Maybellene" on May 21, 1955. … The point is that, you know, just like a Beethoven symphony, I think an early Chuck Berry song of this quality is one of those things; it's absolutely timeless. I mean, people are gonna be listening to this stuff centuries from now, and the ability to listen to it with a newfound clarity is going to be eye opening. But that opportunity is lost if in fact that master recording is no longer there. Now, you're going to only hear copies of copies of that recording and you will never get back to that original source tape.
On all the unreleased recordings that may have been lost
Kot: At the time [the studios] decided, "OK, we just need these 12 songs for a record." But meanwhile, there's 30 other recordings that were just left off and never returned to again. So imagine that times 10 with the entire roster of Chess Records in the '50s and '60s. We're talking about Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy — you know, giants of music who were in those studios several times a year making recordings and only having a fraction of that actually released to the public at the time.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. The broadcast version of this story was produced and edited by Alyssa Edes and Cate Cahan.