The Rise and Fall of Chess Records

The visions of men have ability to take form, under the worst circumstances. The visions of men can drive them mad, make them hated, and lose them everything. Following dreams can sometimes produce fruit, while other times produce just one more opportunity to piss in the wind. Sometimes, they can make two polish immigrants push a group of poor black men and women from the bottom of Chicago’s blues scene to the top of the billboard charts. This happened at least one time, and it was for Leonard and Phillip Chess, founders of Chess Records. With others, they birthed and parented the Chicago blues movement, bringing opportunities to the folks who gave it a voice. In a time where black and white couldn’t even share the same set of steps, they created a whole new style of music together, paving the way for rock n’ roll.

Leonard and Phillip Chess came to America in 1928, settling in Chicago just before the onslaught of the Great Depression. During the 30s and 40s they bought up multiple clubs in town, giving black migrants from the south places to display their talents, the biggest of which was the Macamba. They brought in blues and jazz artists that would otherwise have nowhere to go. They noticed a lack of places that black artists could go to record, so they decided to start a label and do it themselves. Around the same time they met a couple named Charles and Evelyn Aron, who had started up a small label, Aristocrat Records. Joining forces in 1947, the Chess brothers saw their goal on the horizon.

The 30s and 40s saw a huge migration of southern blacks into northern towns. In the post-war culture of America, jobs were found in the factories of the north, so many moved north, looking for more opportunities. The promise of more than a sharecropper’s wage brought a young McKinley Morganfield to south Chicago, with an electric guitar and little else. He played on the street, meeting up with other blues artists, eventually forming a band and making the rounds to the clubs. He ended up playing in one of the Chess brothers’ clubs, where he was discovered by Leonard. This is how Muddy Waters first came to record with Aristocrat, later renamed Chess Records, becoming the father of the electric blues, and one of the key figures in the Chicago blues movement. He would also influence a handful of guitarists throughout the 50s and 60s to create some of the best rock licks of all time, including Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and more.

By 1950, Leonard and Phillip had bought out the Arons, renamed and reorganized the label into Chess Records, and located it at 2120 S. Michigan Ave. Along with Muddy Waters, Leonard discovered Little Walter, the harmonica player that would revolutionize the instrument in the field of electric blues. Not only was he Muddy’s sidekick, providing the signature harmonica licks in all his hits, but he became a solo artist in his own right. He recorded on the Checker label, a subsidy of Chess, having a few hits, most importantly being “My Babe” in 1955. Soon realizing that they needed to scout talent from across the nation, the Chess brothers started looking to Sam Phillips to provide up and coming players from the South. This connection brought up Chester Burnette, known to us as “Howlin’ Wolf”, from the salty streets of Memphis. He first recorded with Phillips at Sun Studios, producing the hits “How Many More Years”/”Moanin’ In The Moonlight” in 1951. These masters were leased to Chess, because Phillips had yet to start his own label. They brought the Wolf up to Chicago where he cut “Smokestack Lightnin'”. The rest is history.

Probably the greatest addition the brothers added to the company was a session bass player named Willie Dixon. He was the in-house songwriter/bass player/producer on most of the music coming out of the studio. His hands were in every part of the process, and although he wasn’t in the spotlight like Muddy or Wolf, he laid the ground work and kept the fires burning for years.

It’s amazing that this was able to happen at the period in American history that it did. Civil rights wasn’t even a whisper on the lips of future activists; the black musicians putting Chess on the map were relegated to using a back stairway to get to the studio. White artists were recutting their music and taking every song to the top of the charts, reaping the benefits while Muddy and the rest had to get full-time jobs. Instead of being given any royalties in money, Leonard would buy them cars or houses, not giving them access to the money they rightfully deserved. It is said that Leonard was equally loved and hated by everyone. He was a conduit for their music,  but he was a hard-driving, tough-as-nails man to deal with in person. He knew what he wanted and he would stop at nothing to get there. Despite the opportunities created, we can’t overlook the fact that this was not a colorblind world, and it did not keep colorblind company.

By 1960, the Chess brothers had taken on more help in the studio and daily running in order to spend more time on the radio stations they had acquired. WVON was an exclusively black station, playing all the Chess artists, from Muddy and Little Walter, to Chuck Berry, whom Muddy had convinced to join Chess, Etta James, who became a legendary r&b artist, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker and many others. Along with the main label, they started Argo (later renamed Cadet) Records for all their jazz and r&b cuts. Ralph Bass was hired away from King Records in 1959 to oversee all A&R; he in turn brought in Billy Davis to produce. Billy was instrumental in reviving Etta James’ career and also bringing Chess into the area of soul music. Etta became their biggest soul artist, along with Fontella Bass, the Dells and others.

Chess continued to pump out hit after hit throughout the 60s, but the loss of key personnel and the selling off of the company proved to be a fatal blow to an otherwise untouchable contender. Billy Davis left in 1968 to pursue another career, which caused most of the creative talent to also walk out the door. Leonard, who had always been the creative touchstone for the entire operation became heavily involved in WVON; he and Phillip sold Chess in 1969 to General Recorded Tape and later that year he died unexpectedly. This was the final nail in the coffin. Quality output petered out by 1972 and by 1975 GRT sold off what was left of Chess to New Jersey label, All Platinum Records. It all happened so suddenly; the company with no foreseeable end in sight was gone. Chess was the black sheep of the crowd from day one, but it was the sheep that everyone looked to for necessary change.

Among the countless artists touched by the Chess output stand the Rolling Stones. They recorded there in the mid 60s and immortalized it forever with their instrumental “2120 S. Michigan Ave.”, on their 1964 album 12×5. Technically, the song was recorded with 4 others for their 1964 EP 5×5, but it was paired with other recordings for their U.S. LP release later that year. Another story that may or may not be true comes from the first time Brian Jones met Keith Richards. Apparently, Jones saw a copy of Chess LP-1427, The Best of Muddy Waters and they began talking. Whether it happened or not doesn’t really matter; they formed a band and titled it after one of Muddy’s songs, “Rollin’ Stone”.

The blues travels everywhere; it came on trains and buses from the south to the bustling cities above the Mason/Dixon. It hopped a plane and landed in small town record stores all over England, finding the hands of hungry white guitarists. It  continues to travel over airwaves and throughout space: a copy of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” was launched into space in the 70s, traveling to galaxies unknown still. Leonard and Phillip had an idea and they ran with it. They took the blues and threw it as far as they could, hoping someone else would catch it and continue running. Great ideas defy time and space; we take them as far as we can before we hand them off to the next person. It’s one of life’s greatest gifts.

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