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The Chess Story - Chess Records Chicago

Updated on August 19, 2013

Home to musical performers such as Chuck Berry, Etta James, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, and known world wide for some of the most memorable songs in the genres of Blues, R&B, and Rock and Roll, Chess Records is known as the birth place for many hit songs that are now regarded as the foundation of rock music.

Chess Records was owned and operated by Phil and Leonard Chess; the Chess brothers immigrated from Poland in 1928, and were educated in the public schools on the west side of Chicago. At first they were in the night club business, but in 1947, Leonard Chess purchased a part ownership in Aristocrat Records. Later in 1950, Leonard talked his brother Phil Chess into joining the record business; as a result, the Chess brothers became sole owners, and Aristocrat records was renamed to Chess Records. When the Chess brothers realized the potential of the record business, they gave priority to the record studio operations; In the early days of Chess Records, Phil and Leonard Chess handled the majority of the production; From their nightclub experience the brothers understood the preferences of the African-American audience, but more importantly they saw the potential of marketing this music to a more diverse audience. One of the first records released by Chess Records was Gene Ammons "My Foolish Heart." This record was followed by Muddy Waters' "Rollin' Stone", and another Chess artist "Little Walter" revolutionizes the use of the harmonica in Chicago Blues. As time went on, and as more artist signed with the Chess Label, the Chess Brothers ran into a problem; radio stations would only play a limited number of records from any one label; to get around this problem they created subsidiary labels; some record labels under the Chess name were Checker, Marterry, and later Cadet Records. Despite the success of Leonard's recruiting efforts, he desired to find talent outside the Chicago area;

Leonard received the assistance he needed from Sam Phillips owner of the Memphis Recording Service. Phillips would record local artist he though had potential, and lease the masters to the Chess Brothers. Some artist discovered in the Memphis area included Roscoe Gordon, Rufus Thomas, and Bobby "Blue Bland'; One of his top performers was Howlin' Wolf; he performed :"How many more years" and "Moan' at Midnight" which were hit singles in 1951. By 1953, Howlin' Wolf left the Memphis area for Chicago; once there he would have other hits such as "Who Will Be Next" and "Smokestack Lightning." In 1954, the MoonGlows had their first hit "Sincerely." Later in 1955, new talent arrived in the Chess family; The Flamingos, Sony Boy Williamson and Bo Diddley were signed. Bo Diddley's "Bo Diddley" and "I'm A Man" were big hits for Chess Records. In May of the same year, Chuck Berry signed with Chess at the recommendation of Muddy Waters.

In 1956, Chess Records moved their business into a two story building at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue. During the next few years, this location produced hits for a variety of artist such as Little Milton, Etta James, and The Rolling Stones. Later in 1964 the Rollings Stones would pay tribute to the location with the song "2120 South Michigan Avenue." As Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley sold more and more records,some of the blues performers started to fade into the back ground, but Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf were determined to hang on; in fact Howlin' Wolf did some of his best recordings in the 1960's, with song written by Willie Dixon such as "Back Door Man" and "The Red Rooster." Etta James made her debut in 1960; she had four hits for the year 1960. Building on the success of her 1960 hits, James had two additional hits in 1961 "At Last" and "Trust In Me."

In 1969, the Chess brothers sold the company to General Recorded Tape(GRT), and later in October of the same year Leonard Chess died; once he was gone, the company began to deteriorate despite the efforts of the new owners. By 1972, the only functioning part of the business was the recording studio; In 1975 GRT closed what was left of Chess Records; after changing owners a few times, the Chess Masters would eventually become the property of MCA Records.

Although Chess Records is gone, its spirit lives on in the music that was created during its golden age. You can hear the Chess sound in some of today's music, and it was the subject of two movies released in 2008 "Cadillac Records" and "Who do you Love." 2120 South Michigan Avenue is home to Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation, and is now a historic landmark. Although some of the performers are gone, their music will live on.


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    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 5 years ago from Texas, USA

      @James A Watkins - That is interesting, I bet Bryce Roberson could tell you many stories. I didn't know you were in a band too, that is so cool. Thanks for your comments and sorry to hear about Roberson's death, but its nice to hear from you again.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 5 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you for this awesome Hub. The chief sound engineer for Chess Records during the last decade or so was a friend of mine, now deceased, Bryce Roberson. He opened his own studio in Kalamazoo in the early 1970s called "Uncle Dirty's Sound Machine," which is where my band recorded its first album in 1976. (Uncle Dirty was his nickname.)

      I enjoyed this blast from the past. :)

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @katiem2 - Thanks for the kind words. I am glad you found it interesting :)

    • katiem2 profile image

      katiem2 7 years ago from I'm outta here

      I just adore music and can always count on you to provide the best reviews and tributes. I very much enjoyed this one. Thanks for the chess story I learned somthing interesting about a label and it's history.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @tonymac04 - I am glad you enjoyed reading my article :)

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      I enjoyed reading the story of Chessx Records. I had heard of them and of course know of many of the artists but not the story behind the label. Thanks.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @music messenger - Thanks for your feedback :)

    • music messenger profile image

      music messenger 7 years ago

      Great info. Thanks

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @platinumOwl4 - I am glad you found my article interesting, and thanks for your feedback.

    • platinumOwl4 profile image

      platinumOwl4 7 years ago

      Hello Coolmon2009, I knew most of the story but you included little known facts. That is why I will always stop by to see what is new on you page.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @hypnodude - Thank you for the kind words, glad you enjoyed it :)

    • hypnodude profile image

      Andrea 7 years ago from Italy

      Another beautiful and very interesting hub. Thumbs up. :)

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Micky Dee - So nice to hear from you again; thank you for the comment and stopping by :)

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 7 years ago

      Sweet home Chicago! Great videos again. Thanks for another great hub Coolmon!

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Sage Williams - Thanks for your feedback, and nice to hear from you again :)

    • Sage Williams profile image

      Sage Williams 7 years ago

      Wow, you did some fascinating research, very well written and put together nicely. I learned quite a bit. Etta James and the Rolling Stones, two of my all time favorites.

      Nice Job!

      Sage

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @tim-tim - I am glad you enjoyed this hub; thanks for your feedback.

    • tim-tim profile image

      Priscilla Chan 7 years ago from Normal, Illinois

      I love the older music. I heard of some of the artists. I love Chuck Barry! Thank you for the lesson of Chess Records.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @prasetio30 - I thank you for your comments, but this article is about a record company in Chicago in United States. Thank you for stopping by.

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 7 years ago from malang-indonesia

      I like something about history. And I found something new in this hub. There are many Grand Master of Chess in my country. They dedicate their self in this sport. As a brain sport, I rate this Up!

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Chicagovision - Glad you enjoyed reading this article, and thank you for your comments.

    • Chicagovision profile image

      Chicagovision 7 years ago from Chicago

      I love anything from Chicago, and these were some all time greats. good hub.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @ladyjane1 - Thanks for your feedback, and nice to hear from you again :)

    • ladyjane1 profile image

      ladyjane1 7 years ago from Texas

      Very nice hub and stuff I had no idea about great job coolmon.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Teresa Laurente - Nice to hear form you again, and I am glad you enjoyed reading this article :)

    • Teresa Laurente profile image

      Maria Teresa Rodriguez - Laurente 7 years ago from San Antonio, Texas, U.S.A.

      Wow, Coolmon2009, the evolution of music industry. Thank you for sharing this, I liked it. More power.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Truth From Truth - Thanks you for your comments, and it is nice to hear from you :)

    • Truth From Truth profile image

      Truth From Truth 7 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks again for sharing your great knowledge of the music industry. Chess records definitely released some incredible music from several legends. With Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters. Nicely done, thanks.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @prettydarkhorse - You are asking the wrong person to teach you to dance; I love music, but I have two left feet. Thanks for the compliment Maita, I try to pick interesting topics :)

    • prettydarkhorse profile image

      prettydarkhorse 7 years ago from US

      youre welcome cool, I see you always have collection of good "feature" personas, nice choices BTW and I know you love music and dance too, Hey cool do you dance, I hope you can teach me Samba, do you know the steps? thank you, Maita

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @billyaustindillon - Thank you for your comments, and thanks for taking the time to read this article :)

    • billyaustindillon profile image

      billyaustindillon 7 years ago

      A great story and will just have to pull out my Chess Box set :)

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @C_Pinto - Thank you for your feedback; I am looking forward to reading more of your articles.

    • C_Pinto profile image

      C_Pinto 7 years ago from USA

      Very nice info. Thank you. I loved the video. I definitely want to watch the movie.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Ladybird33 - Glad you enjoyed reading this article; thank you for your feedback.

    • Ladybird33 profile image

      Ladybird33 7 years ago from Fabulous USA

      I love this idea and what a history lesson it was for me! Very informative and glad I stumpled upon it!

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @dahoglund - Yes you are right; it was the small studios that gave the little guy the personal attention and encouragement needed to become well known, and sometimes go on to bigger things; as always, thank you for your feedback :)

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I am beginning to see more importance to the history of recording companies and their influence than I used to.It might be because I grew up at a time when a few large companies controlled the music industry. However it was some small companies that encouraged many artists that might not have been heard otherwise.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @prettydarkhorse - Hi Maita - Nice to hear from you again; thank you for taking the time to comment on my article :)

    • prettydarkhorse profile image

      prettydarkhorse 7 years ago from US

      Now, I know about it -- Chess records, I heard about Etta James though, thanks for the knowledge cool, well writen hub again, Maita

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Pamela99 - I know what you mean I like Etta James too; Nice to hear from you again. Once again, hope your trip goes well for you :)

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @Sandyspider - Thanks for the feedback; nice to hear from you again.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image
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      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      @BkCreative - Thanks for the comments; I like Miss James too; Nice to hear from you :)

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 7 years ago from United States

      I love all those older stars also, particularly Etta James. this is a good hub. I love music.

    • Sandyspider profile image

      Sandy Mertens 7 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      So good to see this music history.

    • BkCreative profile image

      BkCreative 7 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      I looooove Etta James! Love love love! I didn't know about the Rolling Stones (another favorite) and their dedication.

      Ah, so much music history. Glad you are keeping it alive. Thanks so much!