Mel London is perhaps best known as a record producer and record label owner, but he was also a talented songwriter whose work was often in the R&B charts when he was still in his early 20s. His Chief Records became one of the most progressive independent labels in Chicago in the 50s, during the ‘Golden Age’ of electric Blues.
Melvin R London was born in Mississippi in 1932, and little is known of his early life, until he turned up in Chicago with a song, ‘Poison Ivy’, which Willie Mabon took to No.7 in the R&B chart on the Chess label. Leonard Chess was impressed with Mel’s writing and both Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were soon having hits with his songs. ‘Manish Boy’ is co-credited to Mel, Muddy and Bo Diddley, as it was a ‘response’ to Bo’s hit ‘I’m a Man’, also on Chess.
The original 1955 version of ‘Manish Boy’;
In 1957, Mel set up Chief Records, and their first release was a version of Otis Rush‘s ‘I Can’t Quit You’, leased from Cobra, followed by Mel’s debut as a vocalist on his song ‘Man from the Island’. However when Elmore James‘s contract with the Bihari Bros. ran out, Mel signed his first big star. A version of ‘It Hurts Me Too’ was leased from Vee-Jay, but soon Elmore was having hits with Mel’s songs ‘Cry for Me’ and ’12-year-old Boy’. Mel then signed Junior Wells, and using Earl Hooker‘s scintillating session guitar, ‘Messin’ With the Kid’ and ‘Little by Little’ were massive hits for Junior. Earl also backed Magic Sam on his early recordings for Chief, as well as putting down some brilliant instrumentals of his own. One of these, ‘Blue Guitar’ was leased to Chess, and they overdubbed Willie Dixon‘s lyric to produce Muddy’s classic version of ‘You Shook Me’. Mel and Leonard repeated this trick several times, to provide Muddy with more great records using Earl’s tapes.
Great performance by Muddy over Earl Hooker’s solo track;
Chief’s subsidiary labels Profile, Age and Mel-Lon released records by AC Reed, Johnny ‘Big Moose’ Walker and Jackie Brenston in the 60s, but the business was getting into financial trouble, and they went bust in 1964. Mel was still young enough to start again with labels like All-Points, Bright Star and Starville, but they didn’t repeat his former success and Mel passed away in Chicago in 1975 at the age of 43.