I recently caught up with an interesting documentary on Sky Arts called ‘Born In Chicago.’ It looked at the Blues artists who migrated North from the South from the 1920s and 30s in search of a better life and hoped for riches, earned through their music. Wonderful performers like Muddy Waters – real name Mckinley Morganfield- Howlin’ Wolf – Chester Burnettt to his mum – Little Walter – once known as Marion Jacobs – were all featured.
The programme also looked at the influence those gentlemen then had on a new breed of white music makers who soaked up as much of the Blues sounds and lifestyles as they could, and who then forged a career on the back of that grounding. Take a bow Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite and Mike Bloomfield among many others.
Central to all of the stories above, was the record label Chess -‘Home to the electric blues.’ Forming out of the embers of Aristocrat Records which had started life in 1947, Chess from 1950 would go on to highlight wonderful music from across many genres though it is mainly always associated with the Blues.
The list of wonderful acts who ended up on the label and its imprints over the years, include the aforementioned Walter, Muddy and Wolf as well as Chuck Berry, Fontella Bass, Bo Diddley, Etta James, Ramsey Lewis, Billy Stewart, Jan Bradley, Little Milton, Jackie Ross, Tommy Tucker, The Moonglows, Sonny Boy Williams, Elmore James, Lowell Fulsom, Mitty Collier, The Dells, Otis Rush, John Lee Hooker and Buddy Guy.
Based on the south side of the ‘windy city’ Chess was founded and run by Polish immigrant brothers Phil and Leonard Chess. Neither of them were music men, but they knew good business when they saw it. When the liquor store Leonard opened in the 1940s in the predominantly black south side of Chicago, performed well, he then opened a nightclub called the Macomba Lounge.
It is said to be as rough as they come, with drugs and prostitution prevalent, but from the get-go, it had good music as standard, so drew a very decent crowd each night. From there Leonard invested in Aristocrat Records and he was off.
At first he struggled to understand how ‘that music’ would ever sell. Upon hearing Muddy Walters for the first time, he piped up with ‘what’s he saying? And who is going to buy that? Thankfully his partners on the label Evelyn Arons and her husband Charles managed to convince him that the thousands of black southerners who had headed north would for starters. To illustrate that belief, 3,000 copies they pressed up of a particular single, sold out in a day. Leonard might not have understood any of it, but he never argued with success.
Once Chess was under way, Evelyn and Charles stepped aside and Leonard’s brother Phil joined what became then, a two-man operation. The more laid back Phil kept an eye on the nightclub and the admin side of the business, whilst the more out-going Leonard went scouting for future talent whilst hand delivering their records to the radio stations.
Their first release in June 1950 was ‘My Foolish Heart’ by Gene Ammons on a 78rpm. Its catalogue number of Chess 1425, honoured the Chess brothers father’s first Chicago home, 1425 South Karlov Avenue.
An early tie in with record producer Sam Philips saw the release of what many name as the first rock ‘n’ roll record. Philips had sold to the brothers the master of ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, which went on to top the Billboard R&B charts and the profits from which helped set up Sun Records. Elvis fans take note.
Other imprints from the label included Cadet, Argo and Checker. In house production at 2120 S. Michigan
came from the brothers themselves and Willie Dixon, plus Billy Davis on the majority of any soul cuts. Davis also contributed songs and bass lines on many of the sessions, alongside Maurice White and Louis Satterfield later of Earth Wind & Fire and guitarist Phil Upchurch. Then throw in the mix, sidemen of the quality of Otis Spann, Ike Turner and Hubert Sumlin and you have the cream of any crop right there.
In 1958, Chess began to release albums, including compilation best of’s for Little Walter, Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters. In the UK, a young Keith Richards noticed school friend Mick Jagger carrying a couple of Chess Lps, under his arm, which Mick had imported directly from the States. The rest as they say, writes itself, and eventually The Stones went on to record at Chess.
1969 sees Marshall, son of Leonard; take over the running of the company, before it was sold onto the General Recorded Tape Company for nearly $7 million dollars. Sadly, Leonard died in the October of 1969.
GRT closed in 1975. Ten years later MCA picked up the option on the Chess catalogue. The huge Universal Music Group then picked up MCA and they now own the Chess back catalogue, which it runs alongside Geffen Records.
The story of Chess Records was depicted on film twice in the same year of 2008 with ‘Cadillac Records’ and ‘Who Do you Love?’ The former features Beyoncé as Etta James and Mos Def as Chuck Berry.
Looking back on it all a few years ago, Marshall Chess said ‘we were dealing with blues artists … 80% of them were drinking. There was a lot of yelling, a lot of calling people ‘motherfucker’, and fighting. Blues artists, often you could give them $2,000 on Friday and they’d be broke by Monday. Then they’d come in and say, ‘you fucked me – where’s my money?’ You couldn’t be an angel and run Chess records in the ghetto in Chicago. The brothers were tough Jews. You had to be. It was like the Wild West, to be white in the black ghetto in that era. You were put down for even doing business with blacks. When I used to take the money to the bank, it was in a paper bag, and on my way there I used to pass a liquor store/bar, and we used to talk about whether there was blood on the sidewalk outside that day. People carried knives then, not guns.’
I have read it said that the Chess brothers got lucky; as neither knew anything about the music they were selling. Personally, I think they were cute by letting people play to their strengths. They surrounded themselves with enough people who knew what was good, and that made the magic happen. They may have had a reputation for ‘interesting’ tactics with royalty and publishing statements, but they were also loyal to their acts and in return many of their acts were staunchly loyal to them. Howlin Wolf for example stayed with the label until his death in 1976. However it happened, I’m glad we have the music that they all left behind.
Here’s just a flavour of tracks to check out.
‘How Many More Years’
‘We’re Gonna Make it’
‘I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man’
The Mumper of SE5
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