The Chess Records Story

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Chess Records was almost without question the most influential, quintessential All-American Blues label to have ever existed. Chess recorded and distributed some of the most profound Blues men and women in history, including the American icons Muddy Waters and Etta James. It officially became Chess Records in 1947 and in it's time as a label has significantly impacted nearly every facet of modern music.

Chess Records Logo

Original Chess Records Logo

Brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, Chess Record's namesake, were Polish immigrants who migrated to Chicago's southside. They owned several liquor businesses, one of which was the Macomba Lounge night club. Eventually, they used their liquor connetions to purchase a partial stake in Aristocrat Records, where Lenoard Chess reportedly sold records out of the trunk of his car for a time. Muddy Waters was one of the first artists to record with Chess, and was one of the most successful, starting with "Can't Be Satisfied". The Chess brothers purchased the entire company from their partners, changed the name to "Chess Records" and quickly signed on a host of amazing Blues talent, including Howlin' Wolf, the most popular musician at Chess after Muddy, Robert Lockwood Jr., and Willie Dixon, who wrote hundreds of Blues and early Rock songs for dozens of artists, and played a hugely pivotal role in the massive success of Chess Records.

In 1952, a Chess subsidiary was formed named Checker. At this time, only so many songs could be played over the airwaves that were made by a single record label, hence the necessity for subsidiaries. Checker signed on Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson (II), Elmore James, and Memphis Minnie, to name a few.

The mid 1950s brought a new talent and an exciting new sound to Checker: Rock n' Roll. Pioneers of rock Chuck Berry, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, and occasionally, John Lee Hooker played for Chess, making a hot new sound that would change the face of music forever, from the Beach Boys to Elvis, from the Rolling Stones to Led Zepplin.

Chess Records was located at 2120 S. Michigan Ave, Chicago, Illinois

2120 S. Michigan Ave
Now home to Willie Dixon's blues Heaven

In 1960 Chess formed Argo, and welcomed a young Etta James. She almost immediately began carving out a legendary place in both Chess Records' and Musical history with "All I Could Do Was Cry", which reached #2 on the billboard chart quickly after she signed. She followed it up with several other notable hits and, in 1961, her smash album "At Last!", which ranked #116 in Rolling Stone Magazine's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The 1960s started strong for Chess Records. In June of 1964, The Rolling Stones came to Chess to record in the same place as their idols, their greatest being Muddy Waters, whose song "Rolling Stone" the band took their name after. They recorded a number of songs, including, among others, the Blues instrumental "2120 S. Michigan Ave." The title of the song was named after the address of the Chess office and studio. Michigan Avenue at the time was known as record row because nearly all buildings at the time were involved in the music business. The Stones recorded a couple of other times at Chess, including making an early take of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction".

The Best of Chess Records is available through the Essential Bluescentric Music Store In the late 1960s the company was inexplicably losing ground. The demand was drying up for their genre of music, while the bands and people that had idolized and been largely influenced by Chess's artists were flourishing off of the Chess sound. In 1969 the brothers sold Chess Records, and the company recieved what may have been it's damning blow, when, in the same year, Leonard suffered a heart attack and passed away. Phil went on to DJ at a radio station they had previously purchased, WVON, which was a staple in the black community on Chicago's south side. The station was playing music by and for blacks in a time when African Americans were still fighting fierce segregation, and black musicians were more than often denied airtime strictly because of their skin color.

"The blues is at the heart of popular music, and Chess Records are at the heart of the blues"
- Buddy Guy, 1998

MCA eventually picked up the Chess library, long dormant, and finally re-released much of it's material. Willie Dixon's widow purchased the old Chess building and used it as a hedquarters for Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven, an organization dedicated to preserving the memory and appeal of the legendary Blues artists that helped birth music as we know it.

Notable artists at Chess Records
Muddy Waters
Howlin' Wolf
Chuck Berry
Etta James
Little Walter
Bo Diddley
John Lee Hooker
Willie Dixon
Elmore James

Notable Books on Chess Records
Spinning Blues into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records

Notable Movies about Chess Records
Cadillac Records, (2008) starring Adrian Brody, Jeffery Wright, and Beyonce Knowles
Who Do You Love, (2008) starring Jon Abrahams as Leonard Chess

Notable Websites on Chess Records
Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven
Brian Jones Fan Club's Trek to Chess Records