In 2002’s Laurel Canyon, he was the free-spirited frontman who seduced Frances McDormand and Kate Beckinsale with his British accent and rampant shirtlessness. In Janie Jones, due later this year, he plays the washed-up rocker dad of a young girl played by Abigail Breslin (Zombieland, Little Miss Sunshine). For both, Nivola recorded multiple songs, using his own vocals.
And in Who Do You Love, which opens in limited release today, he portrays Leonard Chess, the man whose namesake record label first fostered Chuck Berry, Etta James, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and countless others. (The story was also told in 2008’s Cadillac Records, starring Beyonce and Adrien Brody).
With that in mind, Nivola picked a Chess-centric playlist for EW, featuring everyone from Howlin’ Wolf to the Rolling Stones, after the jump.
1. Little Walter, “My Babe”:”The way I got into blues was kind of backwards. In high school, I was playing the Ricky Nelson version of ‘My Babe’ in my dorm room, and I had a black roommate who was like, ‘Hey, he ripped that song off.’ The next thing I knew, he was playing me the Little Walter version, and that’s what started me on a whole tour of that music and that era.”
2. Muddy Waters, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” “This one’s a little more of an innocent feel than some of his really gritty ones later on, like ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ or ‘Got My Mojo Working.’ It doesn’t have its danger or sexuality on its sleeve, and yet if you listen, it’s really dark and really passionate.”
3. Willie Dixon, “Walking the Blues” “Willie Dixon wrote so many of the songs that Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy and the other best-known Chess records artists recorded—they would fight over who would get them, and yet to the layman he’s not nearly as well known. This one reminds me so much of being in the South in the summer when it’s hot, and it’s got such a great sense of humor.”
4. Sonny Boy Williamson, “Bring It On Home” “Led Zeppelin recorded this later on, pretty similarly to the way he did, but his was the original. Zeppelin were totally obsessed with these guys. It just has a real feeling of menace under it, a real simmering power.”
5. Etta James, “I’d Rather Go Blind” “‘At Last’ is obviously an incredible song, but it’s one that you hear so much that it loses a little bit of.. you know. This one is just as amazing, and it doesn’t have that problem of being too played.”
6. Howlin’ Wolf, “Back Door Man” “There’s no way you could talk about Chess without talking about him because he was such a huge presence. Marshall [Chess, Leonard’s son] used to just describe the physical size of him—he was immense, his hands and feet were just enormous. None of the recording artists for Chess had the raw power and grit that Wolf had.”
8. Bo Diddley, “Mona” “I think that’s the sexiest of Bo Diddley’s songs. He brought this rhythm that he picked up from the African beats that he was obsessed with, and those songs had such a character because of that rhythm. There’s something about ‘Mona’ that just gets in your bones in such a sultry way.”
9. Chuck Berry, “Maybelline” “It’s a song that you don’t hear quite as much as ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and ‘Johnny B. Goode.’It’s a little more subdued, begging the audience a little less hard to love him.”
10. The Rolling Stones, “That’s How Strong My Love Is” “Of all the songs the Rolling Stones recorded at Chess, this is just the most romantic. It’s really passionate and really great, and you can really hear the Chess sound. Whether it was the instruments or where the mics were placed or the way that Leonard found to record, there’s something that all the stuff has in common: a really raw, pared-down sound. Each instrument is very present, the drums are rough, and you hear everything.”
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