The Chess Story - Chess Records Chicago
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.