The Chess Records

A place where the Chicago blues started.

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The Chess Records

Chicago is located almost in the center of the North America. Nevertheless, it is one of the largest seaports of the country. Numerous transatlantic liners come there from all over the world, since Ontario and Erie lakes have been connected to the ocean. A lot of immigrants (mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe) came to the the shores of the Great American lakes in the last century.

In 1928 Leonard and Phil Chess, the two Jewish immigrant brothers from Poland, got off the liner in the Chicago seaport. Even though their pockets were empty, they had a great plan how to make it in the new world.

We’ll skip the part where they get their initial capital and begin the story from the end of the Second World War. By that time the Chess brothers owned two prosperous night clubs in the Chicago ghetto - ’Macamba Lounge’ and ’Cottage Grove.’ The clubs were always filled with visitors, primarily the black working class. They came there to have a beer or two after a long day of hard work, and usually stayed for another hour to listen to the live music.

Since the beginning of WWII the population of Chicago and Detroit had significantly grown because of the black immigrants from the Southern states who came there looking for work. Detroit offered jobs at the military equipment conveyors, and Chicago produced canned beef stew for the army. The two cities could offer a decent job to the poorly paid collectors of cotton from the Mississippi Delta. Brothers Phil and Leonard calculated that hundreds of thousands of southern migrants with a decent income will be able to buy several gramophone records per month. Hearing the familiar music in a huge new city could make them feel more at home. And so the story of the Chess Records began.

Leonard bought a stake in ‘Aristocrat Records’ in 1947. In 1950, he brought his brother, Phil, into the operation, and they became the sole owners of the company. In the same year they brought in a third partner, Evelyn Aron, and renamed the company Chess Records.

The first release from Chess was a 78 RPM single, ’My Foolish Heart,’ backed with ’Bless You,’ by Gene Ammons. It was issued in June 1950 and became the label's biggest hit of the year.

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The brothers searched through the entire South side of Chicago and found many talents. 

One of them was Muddy Waters. In the early ‘40s, Muddy moved to Chicago, where his uncle lived. He worked on a day job and played blues on his new electric guitar in the clubs at night. The first singles of Muddy that were released on ’Aristocrat,’ didn’t get a lot of attention. Although his limited edition second album ’I Can't Be Satisfied’ sold out in one day, the real success came later on.

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Muddy also helped the Chess brothers to seek for the new talents. He wanted to work with the best musicians he could find. He chose the guitarist Robert Johnson, the pianist Otis Spann, and the harmonica players Little Walter, James Cotton and Junior Wells. These people made the famous Delta blues evolve into the new cool harsh electric rhythms, called the Chicago style today. In the early 50's Chess Records signed with Willie Dixon, who later became the author of most of their hit songs. During the ‘50s they also signed with the Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Etta James, Little Walter, Little Milton, T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Rogers, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy and others.
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In 1951, the Chess brothers began an association with Sam Phillips, of the Memphis Recording Service, the forerunner of Sun Records. One of the most important recordings that Phillips gave to Chess was ’Rocket 88,’ by Ike Turner and His Delta Cats, which topped Billboard magazine's R&B Records chart and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 in recognition of its influence on rock 'n' roll.
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In 1952, the brothers started Checker Records as an alternative label for radio play. In December 1955, they launched a jazz and pop label, Marterry, a name created from the first names of Leonard and Phil's sons, Marshall and Terry. This was quickly renamed Argo Records, but the name was changed again in 1965 to Cadet Records to end confusion with a British spoken-word label.
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In 1953, Leonard Chess and Gene Goodman set up Arc Music BMI, a publishing company, which published songs by many rhythm and blues artists.

In 1955 Muddy Waters met Chuck Berry. He was the one who suggested him to contact the Chess Records. With the Chess, Chuck recorded 'Maybellene' (his adaptation of the country song ’Ida Red’). The record sold over a million copies, reaching #1 on Billboard magazine's rhythm and blues chart. This was the record that made the label famous all over the world.

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The second big break for the studio was the former heavyweight boxer known by the name Bo Diddley. His first single ’I'm A Man’ became a huge success. Muddy Waters was so impressed with the song that he created his own version of it, known as ’Mannish boy.’

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In 1969, the Chess brothers sold the label to General Recorded Tape (GRT) for $6.5 million.


In the 1960, two London students accidentally met in the tram. They had not seen each other for several years and were happy to catch up. One of them was holding a stack of the Chess label records.
‘You can also have them, they are easy to get!’, said one student to another. ‘You can write to the address listed on the cover: Chess Records, 2120 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, USA, Michigan. Don’t forget to attach a check.’ As you might have guessed, those two students were Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. But that's a story for the next chapter.

8 comments sorted by best / new / date

    One of the best in my book was Otis Rush, have a listen! He was a lefty but just turned a right handed guitar upside down, like Albert King.
    Oh yeah. The Chicago West Side scene... Mr. Otish Rush used to be one unlucky mf.  During two years of their collaboration, the Chess Records released only one Otis Rush single - 'So Many Roads, So Many Trains.' Otis decided to switch to the Duke Records because of the lack of attention from the Chess. Unfortunately, he didn't find any luck there either. Duke Records released only one of his singles ('Homework') during the three-year collaboration. In the mid-60s five of his songs were included on the compilation 'Chicago/The Blues/Today!.' Because of this record, his work was discovered by the white listeners. One of them was Mike Bloomfield, the guitarist from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Bloomfield convinced his manager (who had Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan among his clients) to do business with Rush. In 1969 Rush recorded the 'Mourning In The Morning' album, that was produced by Bloomfield. Yet again, the album neither the critics nor the audience liked the album. Otis decided to change the label for the Capitol in 1971. He made another record titled  'Right Place, Wrong Time.' For reasons unknown, Capitol chose not to publish it. The material lay in the archives until 1975, when a small label named Bullfrog bought them. By the time the Blues Boom had already faded, and the album sold poorly. Problems continued to haunt Otis for all his life. Even seemingly successful projects have ended with trouble for him. Only in 1994 things started to improve with the release of his album ' Ain’t Enough Comin’ In.' 
    Leonard and Phil is really amazing..They brought the name of Chicago.They are so inspiring..I love the article,it makes us here more inspired for our life.