Phil Chess, Whose Record Label Elevated Unknown Blues Musicians, Dies at 95

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From left, Phil Chess, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Bo Diddley. Chess Records, the independent label Mr. Chess co-founded, was known for recruiting black singers who had migrated from the South. Credit Michael Ochs Archives

Phil Chess, who with his brother founded Chess Records, a storied Chicago label that captured great blues musicians like Muddy Waters in their prime and helped power the musical fusillade of rock ’n’ roll with vibrant recordings by the likes of Chuck Berry, died on Tuesday at his home in Tucson, Ariz. He was 95.

His death was confirmed by his daughter, Pam Chess.

Chess Records was one of the most prominent of the independent labels — Atlantic in New York and Sun in Memphis were among the others — that became successful in the 1950s by finding little-known performers, recording them and persuading radio stations (not infrequently with the help of cash payments) to play their records.

Their goal was profit, but their lasting influence was suggested by the first ballot of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which consisted almost entirely of artists who had recorded for independent labels.

Chess Records was best known for recruiting black musicians who had taken their heartbreak, hopes and not a few harmonicas from the South to Chicago and who, with electric guitars and a big backbeat, gave birth to what came to be known as Chicago blues. In addition to Muddy Waters, its roster included, at various times, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and many other Chicago blues stars.

“Chess not only became the true repository of American blues music, but it also presented black music for the edification of white audiences throughout the world,” the Hall of Fame said in 1987 when it inducted Phil’s brother and partner, Leonard Chess.

Curiously, Phil Chess was neither inducted nor mentioned in the citation. Nor was he depicted in a 2008 movie about the company, “Cadillac Records.” (In another movie about the label, “Who Do You Love,” released in 2010, Phil, played by Jon Abrahams, and Leonard, played by Alessandro Nivola, were portrayed as equals.)

But Marshall Chess, Leonard’s son, who worked with both men at Chess and went on to run the Rolling Stones’ record company, said both brothers did a lot of everything, including supervising recording sessions and hawking records to disc jockeys.

“It was a fully symbiotic, synergistic relationship,” he said in a 2008 interview with The Chicago Tribune.

Leonard’s greater visibility reflected the more public role he played. In addition, he worked primarily with the blues performers, for which the label was best known. Phil mostly shepherded the company’s jazz and doo-wop recordings.

Both brothers, however, were honored in 2013 by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences with a Trustees Award for lifetime achievement.

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The legacy of the tough-talking, cigar-chomping brothers can be seen not just in the records they made but also in the many songs recorded first by Chess artists and later by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others.

The influence of Chess Records was evident in how Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who had been playmates as children, got together musically as teenagers in the spring of 1961. On a train from Dartford, the London suburb where they both grew up, Mr. Richards noticed that Mr. Jagger was carrying two Chess albums then unavailable in England, one by Muddy Waters and the other by Chuck Berry.

The name of the group they soon formed, the Rolling Stones, came from a Waters song. When the Stones first visited the United States in 1964, they made a pilgrimage to Chess’s studio in Chicago and recorded several tracks there, including an instrumental titled “2120 South Michigan Avenue” — the company’s address.

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From left to right, Chess Records co-founder Phil Chess, R&B singer Etta James and record producer Ralph Bass in Chicago at Chess Records Studios in 1960.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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Phil Chess, co-founder of the iconic Chicago blues and rock ‘n’ roll label Chess Records, died Wednesday in Tucson, Ariz. He was 95.

Phil and his brother, Leonard Chess, emigrated to the U.S. from Poland in 1928. Chess Records biographer Nadine Cohodas told their story to NPR in 2000.

“It was a scrappy kind of existence,” Cohodas said of the Chess brothers’ early years in Chicago. “Their father was very determined and he opened a junk shop, as did many other immigrants from Eastern Europe.”

The Chess brothers weren’t keen on that idea. They started a nightclub, then eventually got into the record business — and so, in 1950, Chess Records was born.

The Chess Records roster included Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy and Chuck Berry — all black musicians, which wasn’t always an easy sell on radio in the 1950s. Cohodas said in 2000 that running a record label in the mid-20th century required real mobility.

“The bulk of their trade was really jukeboxes and in taverns and shops and that sort of thing,” Cohodas said. “You simply had to get out on the road, thousands of miles, days and days and days with your car full of records to drop off to every distributor, every disc jockey, to try to see if you could interest them in playing the music.”

So Phil and Leonard Chess hit the road to get disc jockeys to play songs like “Rocket 88.” That record, credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (a.k.a. Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm) is often called the first true rock ‘n’ roll single. Many more of the songs Chess produced and released were eventually covered by the world’s biggest white rock bands — like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.

The Chess brothers ended up selling the label in 1969, and Leonard died later that year. But Phil Chess lived to see the records they put out and the artists they championed become part of music history.

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Phil Chess, who co-founded the legendary label Chess Records with his brother Leonard and helped make Chicago the epicenter of the blues, died Wednesday at his home in Tucson, Arizona. He was 95.

Chess’ nephew Craig Glicken confirmed his uncle’s death to the Chicago Sun-Times, adding that the former record label executive was in good health.

Born Fiszel Czyż in Poland in 1921, Chess’ family immigrated to Chicago – and changed their last name to Chess – in 1928. (“We came from Poland in 1928. That was blues all the time,” Chess once told Vanity Fair.) After a stint in the army, in 1950, Chess joined his brother Leonard – who purchased a stake of Aristocrat Records – in the music business. Their label was eventually renamed Chess Records.

The Chess brothers’ specialty was blues and R&B – “race music” as it was called at the time – with Chess Records signing legendary artists like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Sonny Boy Williamson, Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James and Buddy Guy. The Chess brothers often served as producers for their artists’ recordings.

Following news of Phil Chess’ death, Guy told the Sun-Times, “Phil and Leonard Chess were cuttin’ the type of music nobody else was paying attention to – Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy, Jimmy Rogers, I could go on and on – and now you can take a walk down State Street today and see a portrait of Muddy that’s 10 stories tall. The Chess Brothers had a lot to do with that. They started Chess Records and made Chicago what it is today, the Blues capital of the world. I’ll always be grateful for that.”
The music that was released through Chess Records – Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ Ike Turner-penned “Rocket 88,” Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” and “Rollin’ Stone,” Bo Diddley’s “Bo Diddley” and “I’m a Man” (released on the Chess brothers’ Checker Records), Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” and countless more blues classics – became the backbone of what would eventually become rock and roll.

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One thought on “Phil Chess, Whose Record Label Elevated Unknown Blues Musicians, Dies at 95

  1. thanks for posting this Jerry. I hope you are well! Got to see Etta James at jazz fest about 6 years ago, maybe more. She and her filthy mouth laid it down for us honkies! Thanks to Phil Chess for helping bring talent like that to the attention of those who appreciate an amazing musician. While I know you are anticipating snow crystals down in Ridgeway, I am just back from an evening surf session here in MX. Glassy 2-4’ surf and a lazy mexican sunset. Abrazos amigo, ryland gardner 2716 Juniper Ave. #65 Boulder, CO 80304 303-810-9150 snoyeti@mac.com Las Olas LLC, WMI, NOLS, Paragon Guides & Lyons Fire Dept.

    “I’ve heard it said that that within our deathly culture, the most revolutionary thing anyone can do is follow one’s heart. I would add that once you’ve begun to do that, the most moral and revolutionary thing you can do is help others find their hearts.” Derrick Jensen

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