Everyone who loves rock history knows Chess, the record label that inspired The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and so many other bands that shaped rock in the 60s. But Chess was not just a home to Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Throughout the 60s, the company was active in every area of modern music, including psychedelic rock, jazz, swing, and rhythm’n’blues. And like every other label that had its roots in African-American music of the era, it gave the urban black audience what it wanted: soul. Along with the blues and rock’n’roll releases that made the label’s name, the best Chess soul records also helped shape the future of music.
Like Detroit, the other major musical metropolis in America’s Midwest, Chess’ home city of Chicago was one of soul’s epicentres. The city was stuffed to the gills with talent the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler, Major Lance, Barbara Acklin, The Chi-Lites and many more calling the Windy City home. While Chess faced stronger local competition than Motown fought off in Detroit, the best Chess soul cuts still delivered the floor-filling goods on a regular basis, and many aficionados of the music consider Chess’ brand of soul to be more authentic than that from other cities.
So, slip on your soulful shoes and get down in the basement, because here are 10 of the best Chess soul sides you really must hear. And remember, this is just an introduction; there are heaps of superb soul records from the same source…
Etta James & Sugar Pie DeSanto: ‘In the Basement’
It’s curious how history changes the way artists are perceived. These days Sugar Pie DeSanto is usually regarded as a blues belter and Etta James is known for sobbing ballads such as ‘At Last’, or her salacious version of Randy Newman’s ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’. Both singers were actually formidable proponents of modern soul throughout the 60s, and when they got together to let rip, as they did on ‘In The Basement’, it’s hard to understand how the microphone even managed to capture so much soul. Released in 1966 on Chess’ Cadet subsidiary – home not only to some of the best Chess soul, but some of the label’s most invigorating jazz excursions as well – this powerfully groovin’ tune depicts a party venue so fiercely funky that you’d be a fool not to go – though you might never recover. If it doesn’t make you dance, you don’t belong down there.
Etta James left us in 2012, but DeSanto has stayed strong and sassy and is still gigging – in her 80s. While you’re about it, check out her ‘Soulful Dress’, and another ball-bustin’ duet with Etta, ‘Do I Make Myself Clear’. And, trivia fans, the producer of ‘In The Basement’, Chess stalwart Billy Davis, has writing credits on his CV as diverse as Jackie Wilson’s ‘Reet Petite’ and the massively successful soft-drink advert ‘I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke’.
Billy Stewart: ‘Sitting In The Park’
When soul fans refer to the Chicago Sound, they often mean the sweet and harmonious style represented by the likes of Billy Stewart’s ‘Sitting In The Park’. The singer’s debut 45, ‘Billy’s Blues’, sold well enough in 1956 for Chess to stick with him, and Stewart was not only a fine tenor vocalist, he had personality. He was a big unit but his tongue was nimble, and his trills and ability to improvise on a melody were beyond compare by the time he hit his peak in the mid-60s, when he recorded this, one of the best Chess soul sides of the decade.
Stewart never tried to cover up his rotund figure. Instead he made it a trademark in his compositions ‘Fat Boy’ and ‘A Fat Boy Can Cry’, and cast himself as a loser in love in ‘Sitting In The Park’. “With my back against the fence/Wonderin’ if I got no sense,” he laments in this highly atmospheric and downbeat performance, delivered in a way any lovelorn teenage kid could identify with. It hit the Billboard Top 30 in 1965, his biggest hit, with the exception of an outlandish version of the standard ‘Summertime’, which could have been included in our feature on the soulful end of The Great American Songbook. Stewart died in a car accident in 1970 at the age of 32, a premature end for one of soul’s most inventive and free-flowing vocalists.
Mitty Collier: ‘I Had A Talk With My Man Last Night’
Never a company to downplay its product, Chess titled Mitty Collier’s debut album Shades Of A Genius, releasing it in 1965 on the back of the success of the elegant and wistful ‘I Had A Talk With My Man Last Night’, which made the US Top 50 – though it should have done better. The title of the album was a deliberate reference to Ray Charles, whom Atlantic had sold as “The Genius”, and it contained three songs associated with him. Sadly, the ruse didn’t work, and Collier’s undoubted vocal brilliance remained appreciated only by hardcore soul fans. But this glorious and stately record, based on James Cleveland’s gospel standard ‘I Had A Talk With God Last Night’, was proof that she could deliver the goods, and it more than holds its own among the best Chess soul records. Further fabulous 45s, including the superb ‘Sharing You’ and the gut-wrenching ‘My Party’, in which she is trying to cover her fears for her fella, who was off to fight in Vietnam, flopped, and Collier made a full-time shift into gospel music in the early 70s.
The Dells: ‘Make Sure (You Have Someone Who Loves You)’
Trying to choose one Dells record is like trying to pick one star from the night sky. Though never as successful, The Dells were every bit as dynamic and innovative as their fellow five-piece vocal group The Temptations, and in Johnny Carter and Marvin Junior, they boasted contrasting light and shade twin lead vocalists unequalled anywhere in music.
The Dells grew out of doo-wop – Carter had sung with The Flamingos – and retained some of that 50s vocal sound throughout a career that lasted more than 40 years with the same line-up. Their first run of success ended when the Vee-Jay label folded in 1966, prompting a move to Chess just as the company was starting to shift from Motown-esque grooves to experimental psychedelic sounds. The Dells were right in the mix, delivering everything from moody mind-bending blow-outs (‘Agatha Von Thurgood’) to touching Vietnam-inspired laments (‘Does Anybody Know I’m Here’). The flip to the latter 1968 single was a silky uptown Northern floater, ‘Make Sure (You Have Someone Who Loves You)’, that manages to be simultaneously soulful, sophisticated and sensitive. The Dells went on to further, sometimes weird and wonderful, glories, and all soul fans should spend quality time investigating their remarkable Chess catalogue.
Fontella Bass: ‘Rescue Me’
This track was a shoo-in for inclusion among the best Chess soul records: a million-selling soul standard recorded in ’65 by a singer who played piano and was steeped in a family gospel tradition, with a sibling who also saw success as a soul singer – shades of Aretha Franklin, anyone? However, while Aretha is a symbol of lasting soul power, Fontella Bass is known only for this one perfect 45, ‘Rescue Me’. Why weren’t there more? Well, there was: there was the follow-up 45, ‘Recovery’, eventually enjoyed by the Northern soul audience, and the superb duet with Bobby McClure, ‘Don’t Mess Up A Good Thing’, among them. Bass would ultimately leave Chess but continued to work in soul and, more frequently, jazz, into the 00s, passing away in 2012. If she is remembered widely only for ‘Rescue Me’, then hers was still quite a life.
Marlena Shaw: ‘Woman Of The Ghetto’
Proof that this cut earns its place among the best Chess soul records, this song has been rinsed by other artists; there are numerous reggae versions, soul legend Doris Duke offered a fine interpretation in 1975; and Marlena Shaw herself delivered a lengthy take on a 1974 album for Blue Note, Live At Montreux. But the 1969 original, released on Shaw’s second album, The Spice Of Life, remains definitive, thanks to the mesmerising punchy groove and the near-yet-far production delivered by Charles Stepney and Richard Evans, masters of Chess’ psychedelic soul era. Featuring a kalimba (thumb piano) presumably wielded by future Earth, Wind & Fire leader Maurice White, who was playing sessions for Chess at the time, ‘Woman Of The Ghetto’, which Shaw co-wrote, is cultural, funky, insistent and sexily assertive – and this in a time before the world was ready for black female emancipation. She cut many other fine records, but never sounded quite as powerful as she does here.
Ramsey Lewis: ‘Uhuru’
You didn’t need a voice to be soulful. Ramsey Lewis signed to Chess’ jazz imprint, Argo, in 1956, releasing Ramsey Lewis And His Gentlemen Of Swing, which suggests he wasn’t coming from the same soil as, say, Otis Redding. Ramsey issued 18 albums of jazz piano, covering everything from Bach to ‘Never On Sunday’, before a live version of Dobie Gray’s ‘The “In” Crowd’ delivered an unexpected US Top 5 smash for him in 1965. The rhythm was emphasised with hand claps, the groove was simple and soulful; it was like Motown unplugged. Ramsey and producer Esmond Edwards followed up with hit covers of ‘Hang On Sloopy’, ‘Uptight’ and ‘Wade In The Water’, by which time his records featured a brassy orchestra arranged by Richard Evans, which was not so Motown-lite. If it was formulaic and somewhat polite to some tastes, it was also rather smart and groovy, and Ramsey had by no means finished experimenting, as ‘Uhuru’, from his 1969 album Another Voyage, produced by Charles Stepney and again featuring Maurice White on kalimba, makes plain. Funky or what? Lewis is still working and recording today.
Little Milton: ‘Who’s Cheating Who?’
Chess did not abandon the blues when soul came along, but it did sometimes nudge the sound of its blues artists in a more “contemporary” direction – even the mighty Howlin’ Wolf cut a funky single. However, soul shoes certainly suited Little Milton, a Mississippi blues brother who was every bit as comfortable with a groove as he was with a shuffle. He spent more than a decade as a recording artist before he made a breakthrough with ‘We’re Gonna Make It’ and ‘Who’s Cheating Who’ for Chess’ Checker imprint in 1965. Both featured on the fine album named after the first of those hits. While Milton’s choppy guitar is reminiscent of New Orleans soul, the fluid horn lines and cool groove are pure Chicago. ‘Who’s Cheating Who?’ became a big tune on the Northern scene, particularly enjoyed at Manchester’s legendary Twisted Wheel club, whose patrons more than appreciated the best Chess soul on offer.
Jackie Ross: ‘Jerk And Twine’
An easy-going Northern soul “floater”, ‘Jerk And Twine’ was a two-for-one offer of soul dance crazes. The sweet-voiced Jackie Ross was born in St Louis, Missouri, and moved north to Chicago before her teens; she joined Chess and cut seven singles and an album for the label across 1964-65. A shift to Brunswick, another label that was highly active on the city’s soul scene, saw two more 45s emerge, and she also released 45s for William Bell’s Peachtree and Willie Mitchell’s Waylo companies. With a warm, light and youthful-sounding voice, Ross was one of the best soul singers never to score a major pop hit.
Rotary Connection: ‘Hey, Love’
Though Chess had been as ready as any other label to embrace psychedelic soul during the mid-60s, company bosses Leonard and Phil Chess still felt they needed to become hipper with America’s hippie youth, and put Leonard’s son, Marshall, in charge of a new imprint, Cadet Concept. Not content with releasing the only US hit by British rock legends Status Quo, Marshall and his label set about creating a new band to pursue a hippie-rock-soul dream, Rotary Connection, a group responsible for many of the best Chess soul outings.
With the help of the label’s regular session guitarist Phil Upchurch, producer Charles Stepney, and the experienced songwriter Sidney Barnes as a member of the group, Rotary Connection spent five years testing the limits of psych-soul, as well as backing Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf on their more outlying ventures into fuzzbox blues. Among the group’s number was Minnie Riperton, a fabulous singer with a high register so precipitous, only dogs could hear her top notes. But Rotary Connection were destined to remain a cult outfit. They released six albums between 1967 and 1971, with their third, Peace, being their biggest success (it hit No.24). Their albums, (indeed, single tracks) could be chaotic, breathtaking and confused, but every one now sounds like a glorious folly at worst, and glorious at best. Their final album, Hey, Love, on which they were billed as The New Rotary Connection, is their most cohesive. Perhaps they were aware it was their last chance and wanted to go out with a bang. A dazzling mix of rock, folk, jazz and soul, the title track is as good a place to start as any. Riperton went on to become a star in the 70s; she passed away in 1979 and her unique talent is still missed.
Some of the best Chess Northern soul rarities are collected on the 7” box set Chess Northern Soul: Volume III, which is due out on 16 March and can be ordered here.