Chicago’s Chess Records Studios at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue
Chess Records was one of the most influential Blues, Soul, and Rock and Roll record labels in the mid-20th Century, headquartered in Chicago. The origins of the label were in an R&B club called the Macomba Lounge, opened at 3905 S. Cottage Grove Avenue on the South Side of Chicago by Polish immigrants Leonard and Phil Chess in the mid-1940s.
Soon after the club opened, the Chess brothers realized the commercial potential of the live music they saw performed at their club. It was the dawn of the electrified blues—the merging of traditional southern blues music with new technologies common in the industrialized north. Through the later years of World War II and immediately after, many southern R&B acts such as Louis Jordan, Ivory Joe Hunter, and Memphis Slim had received high record sales and some crossover success. Chicago-area acts like Dinah Washington and Nat “King” Cole were also making inroads on the Billboard pop charts, just as a flood of talented Blues musicians were flooding into Chicago from the South in the later stages of The Great Migration.
Soon after the Macomba Lounge became established as a hot location for South Side blues and R&B acts, the brothers established Aristocrat Records to promote the artists who played the lounge. The original Aristocrat recording studio was located a few blocks down the street from the club. A former truck driver from Mississippi named McKinley Morganfield joined what would become Chess Records in 1950. Better known as Muddy Waters, Morganfield took up the electric guitar and played his native Delta blues with the hard, electric edge blossoming in Chicago. A former boxer and fellow Mississippi transplant named Willie Dixon joined him about the same time as the house songwriter and arranger.
Through the mid-1950’s, Chess Records scored hit after hit. By the time Rock and Roll cropped up as a phenomenon in 1955—the label was fully stocked with a roster of talent ready to take advantage of the growing blues market and its crossover potential. In 1955, Chess added two guitarists that would firmly establish the label into the mainstream market—St. Louis’ Chuck Berry and Chicagoan Bo Diddley.
In April 1955, Bo Diddley released his seminal single, “Bo Diddley” backed with another massive hit “I’m A Man.” It immediately shot to #1 on the R&B chart and resulted in an appearance on Ed Sullivan’s national TV show. Three months later, Chess Records released the first single from Chuck Berry, “Mabellene, which hit #1 on the R&B Chart and became a huge crossover hit at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Berry followed up the hit with another crossover classic, “Roll Over Beethoven” in 1956. Not to be outdone, Bo Diddley put out the classic “Who Do You Love?” (since covered by nearly 40 different recording artists) in 1956. Meanwhile, the market for Chess Records’ standard stable of Blues and R&B artists continued to grow as promotion and distribution became better financed.
In May 1957, largely bolstered by the enormous revenue from Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley record sales, the Chess Brothers converted an old auto repair shop at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue and into their own state-of-the-art recording studio. One of the first records recorded at the new Chess Records studio was Chuck Berry’s classic “Rock and Roll Music,” which climbed to#6 on Billboard’s R&B chart and #8 on the Hot 100.Other classic recordings soon followed: Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Johnny B. Goode” came within the first year the studio opened; other classics like Howlin’ Wolf’s “Back Door Man” and “Little Red Rooster,” Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind” and “Bring it on Home”, and Etta James’ “At Last” were recorded in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
By the time of the British Invasion in 1964, Chess Records studio had become a mecca for Blues, R&B, Soul and Rock and Roll artists. The Rolling Stones, profoundly influenced by the music that had been recorded there, made a notable pilgrimage to record at Chess in June and November 1964. The sessions at 2120 S. Michigan produced their first US hit, the Bobby Womack-penned “It’s All Over Now,” along with the hit “Time Is On My Side,” a song titled after the address of the studio, and the first demo recording for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
Other artists of all types used the studio and its stable of consummate Blues musicians and producers for recording their own hits there: Barbara Lewis’ 1963 hit “Hello Stranger,” and The Buckinghams’ smash hit “Kind of a Drag” were recorded at Chess Records Studios. The Chess Records stable of artists also continued to churn out hits recorded at 2120 S. Michigan in the mid-1960s, such as Billy Stewart’s “I Do Love You” and “Summertime”; Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me”; and Gene Chandler’s “To Be A Lover.”
By the late 1960s, Chess had moved their main recording studio to a larger warehouse building a few blocks away. The illness and eventual death of founder Leonard Chess in 1969, together with changes in the music industry spelled the death of Chess Records in the mid 1970s. The rights to the label’s catalog is now owned by Universal Music Group and managed by Geffen Records.
In the 1970’s Willie Dixon, author of Sonny Boy Williamson’s classic “Bring it on Home” sued Led Zeppelin for failing to include Dixon on the songwriting credits of their hit “Whole Lotta Love.” The suit settled out of court, bringing a huge windfall to Dixon, who then used the funds to improve Blues appreciation and music education in Chicago and around the world. As a result, the former Chess Records Studios at 2120 South Michigan Avenue is now home to Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation.