Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Legendary and world-famous Blues/R&B/jazz label formed by Leonard and Phil Chess (Lejzor and Fiszel Czyz, b 1917 and 1921 respectively in Poland; emigrated to Chicago and changed their names in 1928; Leonard died in 1969; Phil died 19 October 2016, Tucson AZ). Their Mocambo tavern on the South Side booked live music; seeing a lack of local recording facilities Leonard went to work for the Aristocrat label '47, formed by Evelyn and Charles Aron. A release by Andrew Tibbs almost put Aristocrat out of business that year: 'Billbo Is Dead' and 'Union Man Blues' celebrated the demise of a Southern politician and bemoaned racism in labour unions, offending about half the USA.

Leonard bought out the Arons '48; Muddy Waters was one of the first to record; the first pressing of his second release 'I Just Can't Be Satisfied' sold out on the day of issue without a single copy leaving Chicago. After serving in the U.S. Army, Phil joined Leonard in the record business and they changed the name of the label '50.The first single on the new label was by Gene Ammons, soon followed by Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, Rosco Gordon, Willie Dixon (who was also producer, arranger and session bassist; Leonard called him 'my right arm'). Chess hired A&R man Ralph Bass away from King; the Checker subsidiary '53 introduced Little Walter, Little Milton, Lowell Fulson, the Flamingos. They hung a microphone in the rest room for an echo chamber and drove all over the country selling records out of their car; they bought in product from Sun in Memphis (e.g. Jackie Brenston's 'Rocket 88'), and first recorded Wolf on a field trip in Arkansas, with Ike Turner on piano and James Cotton on blues harp. The Chess brothers were paternalistic and never let anyone look at the books, but they looked after their artists like children, helping them out when they needed it and inviting them to family parties (including Marshall's bar mitzvah), not caring what the neighbours thought.

Chess's greatest years were the mid-'50s, when R&B charts were dominated by Muddy, Wolf, Walter, Willie Mabon, Jimmy Rogers, the Moonglows; Chuck Berry on Chess, Bo Diddley and Dale Hawkins on Checker crossed to the pop chart and made the label world famous. Chess also had the jazz subsidiary Argo with Ramsey Lewis trio, Ahmad Jamal, Wes Montgomery, Ray Bryant; rock'n'roll and soul markets were invaded with Etta James, the Dells, the Monotones, Clarence 'Frogman' Henry and others. By the late '50s Chess had dropped blues acts except for the biggest (Muddy, Wolf, Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy) and entered the '60s soul acts such as with Sugar Pie Desanto and Fontella Bass.

The brothers owned radio stations in Chicago and Milwaukee; they sold the record company in late '68 to GRT (General Recorded Tape), then one of the USA's largest cassette-tape companies, to concentrate on radio. Leonard Chess, a heavy smoker and a workaholic, died suddenly '69 without leaving a will. His son Marshall worked for GRT for a while; but that company did not make a success of Chess Records, although they had the first no. 1 Billboard pop chart hit in 1972 with Chuck Berry's 'My Ding-A-Ling', described by Billboard as a novelty. The label was sold to All Platinum '75 (see Mickey and Sylvia), who lost it to their distributor MCA '85, whereupon some adequate reissue projects finally got under way. The Chess studios at 2120 South Michigan were opened as a tourist attraction '97.