Chess Records, the label founded in Chicago in 1950 by brothers Leonard and Phil, made their name with blues records before establishing a far-reaching influence on the world of 50s and 60s music with their R&B and rock’n’roll records. It was because Mick Jagger had a couple of Chess albums (by Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry) under his arm at a railway station that he was approached by a young man called Keith Richards. They bonded over their love of music and named their band after the famous Muddy Waters song ‘Rollin’ Stone’. The best Chess rock’n’roll records influenced the Stones no end, and it was the Stones’ obsession with them that helped bring the label to the world in the 60s.
The Chess brothers were excellent businessmen and they knew how to find good music and make sure it received enough exposure to reach a large public audience. A lot of the label’s trade was done for the jukebox market, and in Berry and some of the early Chess musicians they found people who could supply hit after hit.
In celebration of their lasting legacy, we present 10 of the best Chess rock’n’roll singles of all time.
Jackie Brenston And His Delta Cats: ‘Rocket 88’
In the early 50s, America had gone “boogie” mad. At the time, Ike Turner was a youngster from Mississippi, who was acting as a talent scout. In 1951, he produced ‘Rocket 88’, which was performed by Turner’s band, with saxophonist Jackie Brenston singing lead vocals and Turner on piano. The pair were co-writers of the song. It wasn’t revolutionary and had the influence of local boogie bands, but the lengthy saxophone solo was wilder than a Louis Jordan one and Brenston growled and screamed the vocals.
The lyrics pre-dated some of Chuck Berry’s mixing of sex/car metaphors and ‘Rocket 88’ is generally cited as the first rock’n’roll single, a historical landmark that forever marks it as one of the best Chess rock’n’roll records.
In those days, promoting records was hard work. The Chess brothers had to get out on the road delivering records to every distributor and DJ within reach and try to persuade them to play the music. That is exactly what they did with ‘Rocket 88’. The radio stations loved it and Chess Records had a hit on their hands.
Chuck Berry: ‘Roll Over Beethoven’
Phil Chess said he considered Chuck Berry, not Elvis Presley, the real king of rock’n’roll, and Chuck’s sides for Chess Records show why. Berry’s first Chess compilation, ‘Twist’, showcases everything that was good about him, including his blistering guitar work, his singing, his startling songwriting ability (“Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news”) and his sheer panache.
Though ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ is a fine representation of his 50s work with Chess, Berry could easily have taken all 10 slots in this list of the best Chess rock’n’roll records, with classics such as ‘Johnny B Goode’, ‘Maybellene’, ‘Promised Land’, ‘Sweet Sixteen’, ‘School Days’ and ‘No Particular Place To Go’ all being worthy contenders. No wonder John Lennon famously said, “If you tried to give rock’n’roll another name, you could call it Chuck Berry.”
Etta James: ‘I Just Want To Make Love to You’
Etta James is one of Keith Richards’ favourite singers and, like many fans, the Stones legend admired her version of ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’, a Willie Dixon classic made famous by Muddy Waters.
James had sung backing vocals on some Chuck Berry records, including ‘Back in The USA’, and was highly rated by Leonard Chess. The label’s co-owner was one of the masterminds behind her brilliant Muscle Shoals album Tell Mama.
Dale Hawkins: ‘Susie Q’
Under the subsidiary Checker Records, which was launched in 1952, Chess released records by Bo Diddley and Dale Hawkins, along with doo-wop, gospel and soul. Hawkins remembers going on promotional trips to record stations where the Chess brothers would hand out free alligator shoes as rewards for playing their label’s music. One song they did this for was ‘Susie Q’, which was a rockabilly-style classic from 1957, featuring Elvis Presley guitarist James Burton’s signature riff. It was recorded at KWKH Radio station in Shreveport, Louisiana, when Hawkins was just 21. Its status as one of the best Chess rock’n’roll records has never been in dispute: notable cover versions of ‘Susie Q’ include those by The Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
The Moonglows: ‘Ten Commandments Of Love’
The Moonglows were finally inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2000. The band, when led by Bobby Lester, concentrated on doo-wop music, and their song ‘Sincerely’ reached No.1 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1954. With Harvey Fuqua having more say (before he became an important player in the world of Motown), the band, then known as Harvey And The Moonglows, had a hit with ‘Ten Commandments Of Love’.
The Flamingos: ‘(Chick-A-Boom) That’s My Baby’
The Chess brothers really liked the doo-wop rock of The Flamingos – the band performed at the bar mitzvah of Leonard’s son Marshall – and hired them for the Chess subsidiary Checker. At the time, some radio stations limited the number of records they would play from any one label, hence the offshoots. In their first recording session, they cut ‘When’, ‘Need Your Love’ and the upbeat ‘(Chick-A-Boom) That’s My Baby’.
Bobby Charles: ‘Later Alligator’
The reclusive Louisiana singer-songwriter Bobby Charles (born Robert Guidry) played a significant role in rock’n’roll through his songs – and penned one of the best Chess rock’n’roll records when he was just a teenager. The man who wrote the Fats Domino hit ‘Walking To New Orleans’ and Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s ‘(I Don’t Know Why I Love You) But I Do’ also wrote ‘See You Later, Alligator’, a smash hit for Bill Haley.
Leaving a café one night, Charles shouted farewell to a friend with, “See you later, alligator.” As the door closed behind him, a drunken stranger replied, “After a while, crocodile.” That couplet inspired him to write his famous song. At the urging of a local DJ he sang it over the phone to Leonard Chess and the brothers signed him to record it – which he did as ‘Later Alligator’ in 1955 – having mistakenly assumed he was black.
Tommy Tucker: ‘Hi-Heel Sneakers’
Tommy Tucker’s time as a Golden Gloves boxer in the 50s (when he was still Robert Higginbotham) was referenced in his catchy 1963 single ‘Hi-Heel Sneakers’, which was released on the Checker label and reached No.1. The song was later covered by Elvis Presley. Sadly, Tucker died at the age of 48, succumbing to poisonous fumes while renovating his home in New York.
Little Milton: ‘We’re Gonna Make It’
Little Milton was a superb singer and had his greatest commercial successes with ‘We’re Gonna Make It’. Milton had signed to Chess in 1961 and the success of his first single, ‘Blind Man’, convinced Phil and Leonard that they could have a blues-rock crossover success in the mode of Bo Diddley. They hired Carl Smith and Raynard Miner, who had written Jackie Wilson’s ‘Higher And Higher’, to compose for him. ‘We’re Gonna Make It’, with its bold horn backing and gospel-styled chanting, was a big hit in 1965.
Dave “Baby” Cortez: ‘Rinky Dink’
Dave Cortez turned 79 in 2017, but the musician nicknamed “Baby” was only 24 when he had a Top 10 pop chart hit with the organ instrumental tune ‘Rinky Dink’ for Chess Records, in 1962. It proved to be a novelty hit for Chess and the record also became popular among UK wrestling fans after it was used as the theme tune of the 60s ITV show Professional Wrestling, hosted by Kent Walton.
For more of the best Chess rock’n’roll – and everything else the label has to offer – follow the Chess Records Essential playlist, here.