The Chess Records Story

Before Motown and in the spirit of our tremendous musical legacy let me share a story of the record company that introduced the world to the blues and black music when it was called “race music”. It is the story of the legendary Chess Records Family. Let me include the great Maurice White of Earth, Wind, and Fire was nurtured and part of the Chess Family. Yes, I am talking about the ghost of the greats, which laid the founders for Rock and Roll.

                                                                 

                            Leonard Chess                                                Phil Chess

Leonard and Phil Chess, two Polish born immigrants, founded Chess Records the pre-eminent Blues label of the 50s and 60s.Eventually they created a monopoly of Chicago music recording, doing sessions and releasing recordings by every major blues performer from John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, “King of the Slide Guitar”, to Bo Diddley through Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry and everyone in between.

Brothers Phil and Leonard Chess owned the upscale Macamba nightclub on Chicago’s Southside. Chess Records “Home of the Electric Blues” was started by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess in the late forties. Leonard and Phil Chess – two enterprising immigrant brothers from Poland – bought into fledgling Aristocrat Records, a label that had been formed a short time before by Evelyn Aron and her husband.

By the time they got involved with Aristocrat, Leonard and Phil were already aware of what sort of music might sell in the Black community that of a young Delta-born-and-bred slide guitarist: Muddy Waters. Waters had previously recorded for Columbia, the company but none of his work was released. When he recorded “Gypsy Woman” and “Little Anna Mae” for Aristocrat the Chess brothers found in him the means to distinguish their little company from the hundreds of other independent R&B labels springing up across the country.

At the beginning, Leonard and Phil focused their recording and publishing ventures primarily in the area of popular jazz, but soon expanded into blues, receiving their first Billboard recognition in 1947. By 1949 Aristocratic Records which became Chess Records in 1950, was a fixture in the world of music and its recordings and the songs published by Arc Music remain the most impressive collection of blues music in the world.

From their experiences in the nightclub business on the South side of Chicago, the Chess brothers understood the popular preferences of their predominantly African-American audiences, but also saw the marketability of blues music to a broader audience. In the beginning Chess Records was ran as a two man business, with Phil overseeing the nightclub and the offices of Aristocrat/Chess and Arc, while Leonard alternately scouted talent, produced the sessions, and hand delivered fresh recordings to radio stations in the Chicago area.

Willie Dixon

Slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk’s pre-war popularity made him a nice acquisition, and the 1948 session that produced his “My Sweet Lovin’ Woman” was doubly important because it introduced bassist Willie Dixon, an artist whose talent as a producer/songwriter/ session player during the 1950s and 1960s vastly contributed to the label’s long-term success.

McKinley Morganfield aka Muddy Waters and sideman Little Walter

In 1950, the Chess brothers launched Chess Records with Gene Ammons’  “My Foolish Heart,” followed by Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone.” Guitarist Jimmy Rogers made his Chess debut August of 1950, with t “That’s All Right” and “Luedella.” Little Walter who revolutionized the role of the harmonica in Chicago blues with his astonishing flights of amplified fancy. Walter’s legacy is punctuated by his slew of hits during the ’50s: “Mean Old World,” “Off The Wall,” “You’re So Fine,” and the 1955 Dixon-penned R&B chart-topper, “My Babe.”

Chester Burnett aka Howlin’ Wolf

Despite his  success with  local talent, Leonard Chess, aided by Sam Phillips, began to look outside Chicago for talent. Phillips supervised Memphis pianist Roscoe Gordon’s smash “Booted” (1952) and shipped Chess masters by Rufus Thomas, Dr. Isaiah Ross, Joe Hill Louis, and Bobby Bland, but his top contribution to the label’s legacy was Chester Arthur Burnett, a.k.a.  Howlin’ Wolf. With Ike Turner playing the piano both sides of Wolf’s first Phillips-produced Chess 78, “How Many More Years” and “Moanin’ At Midnight,” proved major sellers in 1951. By 1953, Wolf had left Memphis for Chicago, recording more hits including “Who Will Be Next” and “Smokestack Lightnin’.”

Eddie Boyd 

Willie Mabon

                                                                          Memphis Slim 

A host of other blues legends recorded for Chess during the early and mid-1950s. Memphis Slim, Eddie Boyd and Willie Mabon, assuredly did. Boyd’s 1953  “24 Hours” and “Third Degree” both sold very well, as did Mabon’s “I Don’t Know” (1952) and “I’m Mad” (1953), both number one R&B smashes.

John Lee Hooker

John Lee Hooker first recorded for Chess in 1950. Joe Williams made the charts that same year with “Every Day I Have The Blues.” Big Bill Broonzy and Washboard Sam recorded  material in ’53 that straddled the fence between pre-war Chicago blues and the brasher new style.Memphis Minnie likewise attempted to resuscitate her career with a 1952 Checker single, “Me And My Chauffeur.” On the jazzier side of the tracks, saxmen Leo Parker, Tab Smith, Lynn Hope, and Eddie Johnson kept things swinging. By the early-1950s, Water’s group added pianist Otis Spann. Though he was now a star in his own right, Little Walter still recorded behind his ex-boss on Waters’ immortal “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I’m Ready.”

Rice Miller a/k/a Sonny Boy Williamson II

In 1955  new talent was added to the Chess stable. Sonny Boy Williamson, a blues legend across the Mississippi Delta thanks to his King Biscuit Time radio broadcasts, joined Checker, a Chess subsidiary label.  For his first recording “Don’t Start Me Talkin'” Chess paired him with most of Water’s band. Bo Diddley was signed in 1955 too. His first two-sided smash for Checker, the self-titled “Bo Diddley” and “I’m A Man.

But no one at Chess had the impact on the future of popular music that Chuck Berry did. Berry accepted Water’s advice regarding the advantages of working with Leonard Chess, signing with the label in May of 1955 and his first unforgettable hit, “Maybellene.”

There were also vocal at Chess. Harvey Fuqua’s the Moonglows from Louisville had a 1954 hit with  “Sincerely,” and The Flamingos, a Chicago quintet fronted by Nate Nelson, scored big for Checker in 1956 with their dreamy “I’ll Be Home” and “A Kiss From Your Lips.”

As Berry, Bo, and the vocal groups sold platters by the crates, some of the blues greats that had epitomized Chess during its early years of operation began to recede into the background. But mainstays Muddy, Sonny Boy, and Wolf hung tough, Wolf doing some of his best work during the early ’60s when Dixon wrote “Back Door Man,” “The Red Rooster,” and “Hidden Charms” for him (the latter manically energized by Hubert Sumlin’s elastic guitar work).

In 1960, Dixon recruited younger Chicago blues talent, signing guitarists Buddy Guy (“First Time I Met The Blues” and “Broken Hearted Blues”) and Otis Rush (1960’s “So Many Roads, So Many Trains”)

Etta James

Etta James also made her Chess debut in 1960, scoring no less than four hits for the imprint that year alone. Etta’s magnificent work for Argo (and later Cadet and Chess) over the next 16 years uncovered depths of passion and pain barely
hinted at on her previous waxings. She waxed the torch ballads “At Last” and “Trust In Me” (both major hits in 1961) surrounded by sumptuous strings, rocked the house with a gospel-rooted “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” the next year, and set Muscle Shoals ablaze in ’67 with her strutting “Tell Mama,” sounding equally confident in all three diverse settings.

Fontella Bass

In addition to James had many female artists during the mid-1960s that Jan Bradley (“Mama Didn’t Lie”), Sugar Pie De Santo (“Slip-In Mules”), (“I Had A Talk With My Man”), Fontella Bass (“Rescue Me”), Jackie Ross (“Selfish One”), Jo Ann Garrett (“Stay By My Side”), Laura Lee (“Dirty Man”), and the Gems, whose precocious membership included Minnie Riperton. Even Irma Thomas joined the Chess in 1967, recording in Muscle Shoals. protégé Koko Taylor scored the last Chicago blues hit for Checker in 1966 with her growling “Wang Dang Doodle.”

As rhythm and blues merged with gospel influences to form the basis of soul, Chess was right on top of the trend. Little Milton Campbell who had hits with “We’re Gonna Make It,” “Who’s Cheating Who?” and “Grits Ain’t Groceries.”

The Dells

Along with Little Milton, were the Dells, (“There Is” and “Stay In My Corner”) the Radiants (“Voice Your Choice”), Billy Stewart (“Summertime,” “Sitting In The Park”), Bobby Moore & the Rhythm Aces (“Searching For My Love”), Tony Clarke, James Phelps, and Bobby McClure.

Tommy Tucker’s “Hi-Heel Sneakers,” a huge ’64 hit on Checker, traveled bluesier terrain, while the Ramsey Lewis Trio, with Eldee Young on bass and Red Holt on drums, turned out to be a crossover sensation when their grooving instrumental remakes of “The In Crowd” and “Hang On Sloopy” vaulted up the R&B and pop charts in 1965. Nor was the Chess combine deficient in humor – albums by veteran comics Moms Mabley and Pigmeat “Here Comes The Judge” Markham made sure of that.

Chuck Berry remained at Chess into 1966, seemingly rejuvenated after serving a prison term (his 1964 hits included “No Particular Place To Go” and “You Never Can Tell”). After unwisely switching to Mercury Records for a few lean years, he returned home to Chess and scored his biggest pop hit of all in 1972 with “My Ding-A-Ling.” Bo Diddley recorded a slew of Checker LPs throughout the decade, his trademark beat never faltering.

2120 South Michigan Avenue

So inspired by the magnificent output of Chess were the Rolling Stones that they immortalized the label’s famous address, 2120 S. Michigan Avenue, in song on one of their early LPs.

During this time, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf tried their best to cope with ’60s trends. “Muddy Waters Twist” was admittedly nothing to write home about, but his ’63 Folk Singer LP was a heartening return to his Delta roots, and 1969’s Fathers and Sons set united Muddy with adoring disciples Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield. Though at the tail end of the decade producer Marshall Chess submerged Waters and Wolf in a quagmire of psychedelia, each legend emerged with his vaunted reputation intact.

In 1969, Leonard Chess died, stilling the heart and soul of Chess Records. Earlier that year, he and Phil had sold the company to GRT where producers Ralph Bass and Gene Barge tried their best to hold things together. Sadly, though, the momentum that Chess had long enjoyed quickly began to erode. In 1975, GRT closed down the logo, selling it to All Platinum Records of Englewood, New Jersey.

Finally, in 1985, MCA acquired the rights to the massive Chess catalog. At the start of 1987, MCA Vice President of Catalog Development & Special Markets A&R, Andy McKaie began to mount an ambitious long-term reissue campaign of the invaluable Chess masters – an ongoing program that rages full steam ahead all year long in 1997 with the 50th anniversary celebration.

“The impact of Chess was far wider and greater than any of the others, ranging from the impact of the Chicago blues sound, the Chuck Berry/Bo Diddley School of rock & roll, and the vocal group sounds,” he continues. “The range of that impact was so great that it’s still being felt today.

It was the profound music that made the artists of Cadillac Records the groundbreaking home for black music. And that’s my Thought Provoking Perspective…

Courtesy of DK Peneny, Published 3/98 – Last update 10/15/2009

 

About Thought Provoking Perspectives

Welcome to Thought Provoking Perspectives a blog designed to be a potent source of empowering knowledge to broaden the information base with those who share my passion for the written word and the empowerment of thought. View all posts by Thought Provoking Perspectives

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