Legendary record label founder Leonard Chess was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and for good reason. Together with his brother Philip Chess, they founded the quintessential record label of the time whose roster reads as a who's-who in Blues music.
Let's explore the history of Chess Records:
Brothers Leonard and Philip Chess were Jewish immigrants from Poland who came to Chicago in 1928. They were business partners in liquor sales and by the 1940's they owned and operated several bars on the south side. One of their largest was a nightclub named the "Macomba," that featured live entertainment; mainly Blues artists who had migrated to Chicago's south side from the Mississippi Delta in the 30's and 40's.
Quickly realizing that these musicians were not being properly promoted and recorded, they decided to start recording these musicians themselves. In 1947, already aware of what kind of music would appeal to the Black community, the brothers partnered with Charles and Evelyn Aron at Aristocrat Records; who had formed the label specifically to record Blues, Jazz and R&B music.
By 1949, Aristocrat Records (which would ultimately become Chess Records in 1950) was a fixture in the music world and some of these early recordings remain some of the most impressive collection of Blues music ever recorded. Their experience in music helped the brothers understanding of their predominantly Black audiences and they knew what this audience craved.
But they soon realized that the Blues could be marketed to a much broader audience. With Philip Chess overseeing the nightclub and offices at Aristocrat/Chess, this allowed Leonard to produce sessions as well as scout around for new and upcoming talent. Through their connections with Chicago radio stations and nightclubs, the pair was able to build an up and coming Blues musician, Muddy Waters, into the area leading Blues attraction.
With the success of Muddy Waters, Blues musicians were drawn to Chicago and Chess records. Artists such as slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk, Willie Dixon, Gene Ammons, Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter (who revolutionized the role of the harmonica in Chicago's Blues music) were all drawn to Chess- it gave them the chance to record their music and helped promote themselves and the Blues music they loved so much.
However, despite the success, the Chess brothers had with incoming as well as the local talent, they began to search outside of the city for more talent. Leonard was in Memphis and supervised Memphis pianist Roscoe Gordon and also shipped music by Rufus Thomas, Dr. Isaiah Ross, Joe Hill Louis and Bobby Bland up to his brother in Chicago. But one of his greatest finds and one of the top contributors to the label was the music of Chester Arthur Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin' Wolf. Many more Blues legends recorded for Chess records in the 1950's including Memphis Slim, Eddie Boyd, Little Walter, Willie Mabon, John Lee Hooker, Joe Williams, Big Bill Broonzy, and Washboard Sam. Jazzmen Leo Parker, Tab Smith, Otis Spann, Lynn Hope and Eddie Johnson added diversity to the record label.
But in 1955, Chess was able to sign a new talent named Chuck Berry, whose first hit; "Maybellene" added even more credibility to the label. Another new talent was also signed in 1955 (to Checker Records, a subsidiary of Chess), a Mississippi Blues legend named Sonny Boy Williamson. His first recording for the label, "Don't Start Me Talkin'" was recorded with the help of the Muddy Waters Band. Additionally, Bo Diddley signed in 1955 and produced a two-sided smash hit for Checker, the self-titled ditty called "Bo Diddley" and the flipside, "I'm A Man."
Furthermore, Chess Records branched out and signed and recorded two Black vocal groups, the Flamingos and the Moonglows, whose sentimental singing styles would appeal to both black and white audiences alike. But before their records ("Sincerely" by the Moonglows and "I'll Be Home" by the Flamingos) could become hits, they were covered by white artists (a common practice back then). The McGuire Sisters recorded "Sincerely" and Pat Boone released his version of the Flamingos' song "I'll Be Home." Although these white artists garnered much of the sales, Chess Records became nationally recognized as a record company that could produce hit music.
In 1956, Chess established a Jazz subsidiary label called Argo. They were able to land some of the biggest and influential Jazz musicians of the time, signing such Jazz greats as Sonny Stitt, Yusef Lateef, James Moody, Gene Ammons, Lou Donaldson, Ahmad Jamal and Ramsey Lewis, among many others. Although Argo was primarily a Jazz label, they also recorded some of the finest female R&B by a singer named Etta James. Additionally in 1956, Chess had a keen interest in music form New Orleans and signed veteran musician Paul Gayten. Gayten was able to convince others from the area to sign on with Chess including Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Bobby Charles and Eddie Bo.
Chess also had an extensive collection of recordings of gospel and religious music. They devoted an entire series of recordings of sermons by the Rev. C. L. Franklin, who was a pastor at the New Bethel Baptist Church, located in Detroit, Michigan. They became the first record company to record his daughter, Aretha Franklin and their gospel catalog also included albums by the Five Blind Boys, the Soul Stirrers, Alex Bradford and the Violinaires.
By the early 60's, Chess records was a major player in the music industry, selling records by the thousands. They were able to sign some new, young talented musicians including Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. Etta James made her Chess debut in 1960 and many other female artists signed and recorded with the label including Jan Bradley, Sugar Pie De Santo, Fontella Bass, Jackie Ross, Jo Ann Garrett, Laura Lee as well as a female vocal group called the Gems (that counted Minnie Riperton as a member). Irma Thomas also joined Chess in 1967, recording her music in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
When R&B merged with gospel influenced music, it formulated the foundation for Soul music and right at the top of this transformation was Chess Records. In fact, the late 60's were extraordinary banner years for the now well-established record label. But in 1968, after the departure of Billy Davis and founding partner Leonard Chess (who left the record label to concentrate his efforts in a radio station that he owned), much of the creative structure was lost and many of the record producers and songwriters departed as well.
In 1969, Leonard and Philip Chess sold Chess Records to a company called General Recorded Tape (GRT) for over six and a half million dollars (plus twenty-thousand shares of GRT stock). The company also suffered a devastating loss when Leonard Chess died that same year. The quality of the music declined and by the summer of 1972, the Chess Chicago offices were scarcely staffed, the distribution company and pressing plants had been closed as well. In fact, the only Chess studio that was in operation was the Chess Ter Mar studios, which were also operating with a skeleton staff.
By the summer of 1975, GRT was dismantling what was left of the legendary record label. By August of 1975, all GRT record operations had been shut down and what was left was sold to a New Jersey-based company called All Platinum Records.
A catastrophic event occurred when the Chess building in Chicago was sold and the new owners brought in dumpsters and chain saws and destroyed over 250,000 vinyl records that had been abandoned. In one of the music industry's most appalling events, classic recordings by Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Etta James, Muddy Waters and countless others were hauled away to the landfill.
Luckily, the master tapes survived this apocalyptic event and are now the property of MCA Records which has reissued much of the classic Chess material during the 1980's and 1990's. In retrospect, the innovative genius of the Chess brothers, who certainly had a clear eye for talent, is one of the most compelling stories in music history. The now legendary musicians who recorded music at Chess Records are some of the most influential artists of our generation; still influencing a multitude of young musicians to this day.