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Chess Records

Specializing in blues and r&b Over time it expanded into soul music, gospel music, early rock and roll, and occasional jazz and comedy recordings, released on the Chess, Checker, Argo, and Cadet labels. The Chess catalogue is currently owned by Universal Music Group and managed by Geffen Records.

By Dianne Washington

Phil Chess, (wearing hat) passes on October 18, 2016 at the age of 95.

Chess Records was an American record company, founded in 1950 in Chicago and specializing in blues and rhythm and blues. Over time it expanded into soul music, gospel music, early rock and roll, and occasional jazz and comedy recordings, released on the Chess, Checker, Argo, and Cadet labels. The Chess catalogue is currently owned by Universal Music Group and managed by Geffen Records.

Founded and run by Jewish immigrant brothers from Poland, Leonard and Phil Chess, the company produced and released many singles and albums regarded as central to the rock music canon. The musician and critic Cub Koda described Chess as “America’s greatest blues label.”

Chess Records owner, Phil Chess, in the studio with Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Bo Diddley

Chess was based at several different locations on the south side of Chicago, initially at two different locations on South Cottage Grove Ave. The most famous location was 2120 S. Michigan Avenue from around 1956 to 1965, immortalized by the Rolling Stones in “2120 South Michigan Avenue”, an instrumental recorded there during the group’s first U.S. tour in 1964. The Stones recorded at Chess Studios on two more occasions. The building is now the home of Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. In the mid-1960s, Chess relocated to a much larger building, at 320 E. 21st Street, the label’s final Chicago home. Shortly before the death of Leonard Chess in 1969, the brothers sold the company.

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, issued as Chess 1425 in June 1950, which became the label’s biggest hit of the year.

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 and roll. One of the most important artists that came out of Memphis was Howlin’ Wolf, who stayed with the label until his death in 1976. Many songs created by Chess artists were later covered by many famous rock-and-roll artists, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Eric Clapton. Musical figures created for Chess by Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and others were the basis of much subsequent rock and roll.

In 1952, the brothers started Checker Records as an alternative label for radio play (radio stations would only play a limited number of records from any one imprint). 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.

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 the mid-1950s, the Chess brothers received two doo-wop groups by Alan Freed, the Coronets and the Moonglows; the former group was not very popular but the latter achieved several crossover hits including “Sincerely”, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. Several of Chess’s releases gave a writing credit to Alan Freed.

During the 1950s, Leonard and Phil Chess handled most of the production. They brought in producer Ralph Bass in 1960 to handle the gospel output and some of the blues singers. Bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon was also heavily involved in organizing blues sessions for the label and is now credited retroactively as a producer on some re-releases. During the 1960s, the company’s A&R manager and chief producer for soul and R&B recordings was Roquel “Billy” Davis, who had previously worked with Motown founder Berry Gordy on songs for Jackie Wilson, Etta James, Marv Johnson and other early Motown releases.

In 1958, Chess began producing their first LP records which included such albums as The Best of Muddy Waters, Best of Little Walter, and Bo Diddley.

Chess Records was also known for its regular band of session musicians who played on most of the company’s Chicago soul recordings, including the drummer Maurice White and the bassist Louis Satterfield, both of whom later shaped the funk group Earth, Wind, & Fire; the guitarists Pete Cosey, Gerald Sims and Phil Upchurch; the pianist Leonard Caston, later a producer for Motown; and the organist Sonny Thompson. In 1962, Chess Records was sued by Peacock Records for recording their artists Reverend Robert Ballinger and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.

In 1969, Chess Records established a subsidiary, Middle Earth Records, in the U.K., which was distributed by Pye Records. The subsidiary specialized in Psychedelic rock and was a joint venture with the Middle Earth Club in London. The Middle Earth label released only four albums and about a dozen singles before it closed in 1970.

The company was briefly run by Marshall Chess, Leonard’s son, in his position as vice president between January and October 1969 and then as president following its acquisition by GRT, before he went on to found Rolling Stones Records.

In 1969, the Chess brothers sold the label to General Recorded Tape (GRT) for $6.5 million. In October 1969, Leonard Chess died and by 1972, the only part of Chess Records still operating in Chicago was the recording studio, Ter-Mar Studios. Following the sale of Chess to GRT, Phil left the label to run radio station WVON. In the 1970s, Chess Records and its publishing arm, Arc Music, were successfully sued by Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon for nonpayment of royalties due to them.

Some of the other artists who contributed to the legacy of Chess Records were the Flamingos, the Moonglows, Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, the Dells and the Ramsey Lewis Trio.

Although Chess had produced many R&B number-one records and major pop hits over the years, it was in 1972 that the label finally reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100, with Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling”, a live recording from a concert in Coventry, England. It was the company’s swan song. GRT had moved the label to New York City, operating it as a division of Janus Records.

In the early 1980s, noticing that much of the Chess catalogue was unavailable, Marshall Chess was able to convince Joe and Sylvia Robinson, who ran All Platinum, to reissue the catalogue themselves under his supervision (All Platinum had been licensing selected tracks to other companies, which ultimately resulted in the disappearance of some original master tapes). The reissued singles and LPs sold well, but by the mid-80s All Platinum had fallen into financial difficulties, and the Chess master recordings were acquired by MCA Records, which itself was later merged with Geffen Records. a Universal Music imprint.

In the 1990s, MCA Records sued Charly Records for selling CDs which contained copyrighted material by Chess artists.

In February 1997, MCA started releasing eleven compilation albums for the 50th anniversary of Chess Records.

In the 2000s, Universal’s limited-edition reissue label, Hip-O Select, began releasing a series of comprehensive box sets devoted to such Chess artists as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.

Chess Records was the subject of two films produced in 2008, Cadillac Records and Who Do You Love?. In addition to the Chess brothers, both films feature portrayals of or characters based on Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf and Etta James. Cadillac Records was directed by Darnell Martin and features an ensemble cast including Adrien Brody, Mos Def, BeyoncĂ© Knowles and Jeffrey Wright. Who Do You Love was directed by Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks and stars Alessandro Nivola playing Leonard Chess “as a complicated, driven man, hard on both his musicians and his family, yet with a real love for some of America’s greatest music.” The world premiere of the latter film was at the Toronto International Film Festival, September 11, 2008.

Artists Who Recorded On Chess Records

A

  • Alberta Adams
  • Gene Ammons
  • Lee Andrews & the Hearts

B

  • Archie Bell & the Drells
  • Chuck Berry
  • Big Maybelle
  • Dennis Binder
  • Eddie Bo
  • Eddie Boyd
  • Jan Bradley
  • Jackie Brenston
  • John Brim
  • Lonnie Brooks
  • Big Bill Broonzy
  • Solomon Burke

C

  • Barbara Carr
  • Alvin Cash
  • Bobby Charles
  • Tony Clarke (singer)
  • Wayne Cochran
  • Mitty Collier
  • Cookie and his Cupcakes
  • The Corsairs
  • Dave “Baby” Cortez
  • James “Sugar Boy” Crawford
  • The Crew-Cuts

D

  • Sugar Pie DeSanto
  • Bo Diddley
  • Jimmy Donley
  • Al Downing (musician)

E

  • Eddie & Ernie
  • Billy “The Kid” Emerson

F

  • The Falcons
  • King Floyd
  • Four Tops
  • C. L. Franklin
  • Harvey Fuqua

G

  • Lacy Gibson
  • Benny Goodman
  • Rosco Gordon
  • Stomp Gordon
  • Buddy Guy

H

  • Al Hibbler
  • Monk Higgins
  • Jessie Hill
  • The Hollywood Flames
  • John Lee Hooker
  • Big Walter Horton
  • Howlin’ Wolf
  • Fred Hughes (singer)

J

  • Elmore James
  • Etta James
  • Jimmy & Johnny
  • Johnnie & Joe
  • Johnnie Johnson (musician)
  • Floyd Jones

K

  • Kings of Rhythm
  • Rahsaan Roland Kirk
  • Baker Knight

L

  • Denise LaSalle
  • Laura Lee (singer-songwriter)
  • Louisiana Red

M

  • Willie Mabon
  • Pigmeat Markham
  • Jerry Mason (singer)
  • Percy Mayfield
  • Jimmy McCracklin
  • Jack McVea
  • Memphis Slim
  • Little Milton
  • The Miracles
  • The Moonglows
  • Muddy Waters

N

  • Jimmy Nelson (singer)
  • Art Neville
  • Robert Nighthawk

O

  • Danny Overbea

P

  • Leo Parker
  • Doc Pomus
  • Red Prysock

R

  • The Radiants
  • The Rays
  • Jimmy Rogers
  • Doctor Ross
  • Jackie Ross
  • Otis Rush

S

  • Tab Smith
  • Valaida Snow
  • Eddie South
  • Joe Stampley
  • Billy Stewart
  • Hubert Sumlin

T

  • Koko Taylor
  • Sonny Terry
  • Irma Thomas
  • Rufus Thomas
  • Lucky Thompson
  • Tommy & the Tom Toms
  • Ike Turner

V

  • The Vibrations

W

  • Washboard Sam
  • Baby Washington
  • Billy Watkins (musician)
  • Larry Williams

Y

  • Rusty York

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