Chess Records

Chess Records was the place to go for R&B artists in the 50's. Over the years they recorded some of the top music acts in the business.

Leonard and Phil Chess were immigrants from Poland who moved to Chicago as children in 1928. By the 1940's they owned some taverns on the Southside of Chicago. One of these, the Macomba Lounge, booked some rather well-known artists, such as Billy Eckstine. Looking around for recording facilities and finding very little, in 1947 Leonard bought an interest in the fledgling Aristocrat Records. One of the first to record there was McKinley Morganfield, beginning a long relationship with the Chess brothers. Morganfield was better known by his professional name, Muddy Waters, who went on to be regarded as the father of modern Chicago blues, and a very influential musician.

By 1950 Leonard had brought in his brother Phil and the Chess brothers acquired controlling interest in the company and changed the name to Chess Records. With two locations on South Cottage Grove Avenue on the south side of Chicago, the first single on the new Chess label was My Foolish Heart b/w Bless You by Chet Ammons, followed in short order by Rosco Gordon, Willie Dixon, Chester Burnett (better known by his professional name, Howlin' Wolf), and Elmore James. Dixon became a fixture at Chess as a producer, arranger, songwriter, session bassist, and "right arm" to Leonard Chess.

Leonard handled the music end of things, often searching for talent, while his quieter brother Phil mostly attended to business matters. They began an association with Memphis Recording Service, owned by Sam Phillips, who gave them among other things the recording of Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (and written by Ike Turner). It went to number one on the r&b chart, and was one that would prove to be a very influential record. By the mid-50's Chess Records had established itself as a player in the music recording business, particularly in the areas of blues, R&B, and gospel. Chess began attracting other artists and was in a position to record artists in the emerging field of rock-and-roll. In 1956 they moved to larger quarters at 2120 South Michigan Avenue, home to Chess and some of its subsidiary labels such as Checker, Cadet and Argo. Little Walter, Little Milton, the Flamingos, and Lowell Fulton were now recording at Chess. Howlin' Wolf was still around, having been signed after a field trip that took Leonard to Arkansas; his first record included James Cotton on blues harp and Ike Turner on piano. Chess had its greatest years in the mid-50's, dominating the r&b charts with the likes of Willie Mabon, Jimmy Rogers, and the Moonglows, as well as Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. Recordings by Chuck Berry on Chess and Dale Hawkins and Bo Diddley on Checker crossed over to the pop chart, and contributed to making Chess a legendary, world famous label. On the Argo subsidiary records were released by the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Ray Bryant, Wes Montgomery and others. Chuck Berry in particular sold many, many records for the label.

The market for rock-and-roll and soul music was very strong around this time and Chess was right there, releasing records by Etta James, the Monotones, the Dells, and Clarence "Frogman" Henry, among others. By the late 50's most of the blues acts were dropped, save for the biggest and best they had, a group that included Otis Rush, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Buddy Guy, in addition to Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, and Muddy Waters. The Chess brothers made a shrewd move in 1960 when they hired A&R man Ralph Bass away from King Records in Cincinnati. In the 60's Chess found still more artists, a list that included Billy Stewart, Fontella Bass, Sugar Pie Desanto, Laura Lee and Koko Taylor. Many of the blues records recorded at Chess and its subsidiaries had a profound effect on the emerging rock-and-roll bands in Great Britain. In 1964 no less than the Rolling Stones (who took their name from the Muddy Waters record Rollin' Stone) came to Chess for the first of three recording sessions there and recorded an instrumental that paid homage to the great record label and titled it 2120 South Michigan Avenue.

In the mid-60's Chess moved to larger quarters at 320 East 21st Street, its final Chicago home. Chess also acquired radio stations in Milwaukee as well as Chicago. Leonard's son Marshall Chess took a turn at running the company briefly in 1969, and it recorded a few psychedelic records that did not sell well. Over the years Chess and its subsidiaries had ventured into a number of genres, including blues, doo-wop, gospel, jazz, soul, rock-and-roll, and even comedy. Leonard Chess died in October, 1969. The label was sold that year for $6.5 million to GRT (General Recorded Tape). In 1972 Chuck Berry had his and Chess' only #1 pop record in all its years with My Ding-A-Ling. Phil retired that year and moved to Arizona. By 1975 Chess Records was no longer a serious competitor and what was left of it was sold by GRT to All Platinum Records. In 1985 MCA acquired the rights to the Chess catalog.

The building at 2120 South Michigan Avenue later became the home of Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation. Two movies have been made about Chess Records, both in 2008: Who Do You Love and Cadillac Records. Leonard and Phil Chess, Chess Records and its stable of artists had a tremendous impact on the evolution of American music.

Most Recent Update: November 1, 2014

Return to Rock-and-Roll Page.

Return to Home Page.

Send email to the author, Tom Simon