“The Blues is at the heart of popular music and Chess Records are at the heart of the Blues.” – Buddy Guy
In the early 1947 two Polish-born, nightclub-owning brothers, Leonard and Philip Chess (real name Chez) bought into the established Aristocrat label and had their first major success was Muddy Waters, ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’. Nearly two years later Leonard and Phil bought out their original partner and renamed their label Chess Records. The new label’s first release was the 78 RPM single ‘My Foolish Heart’ b/w ‘Bless You’ by saxophonist, Gene Ammons that was released as Chess 1425 in June 1950, going on to became the label’s biggest hit of the year after it entered the R&B chart on 29 July 1950. It was nothing like the sound that we have come to associate with the Chicago power house but it was still a great record.
In 1951, Chess began an association with Sam Phillips‘ Memphis Recording Service and as a result the label released ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats which topped Billboard’s R&B Records chart. Ike Turner was the man behind what is regularly touted as the first ever rock and roll record but that is the subject of a whole other debate. One of the most important artists that signed to Chess through this association with the Memphis recording studio was Howlin’ Wolf, who stayed with the label until his death in 1976.
Along with these new names came other signings, including Jimmy Rogers, Eddie Boyd and his Chess Men, Willie Mabon, and Memphis Slim. By 1952 the Chess brothers started a subsidiary they named Checker; among those on this new label were Elmore James, Little Walter, Memphis Minnie and Sonny Boy Williamson.
By 1955, Chess had expanded still further, as well as crossing over into the white Rock ‘n’ Roll market with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Soon Otis Rush and Buddy Guy joined Chess to give their sound a harder, younger edge. Much of Chess’s success was down to the excellent work of A&R man, composer, and general Mr Fix-it Willie Dixon. Dixon’s bass playing coupled with Fred Below’s peerless drumming are essential to the Chess sound.
Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s Chess records were the soundtrack to much of black America, they were the Motown Records of their day. Chess records were also treasured by young British guys, keen to hear the blues, who would write off to Chicago record stores to order the very latest recordings that they absorbed and copied. Soon enough British bands playing the blues were being listened to by white America, many of whom were unaware of the treasury of brilliant music that was theirs for the listening.
Without Chess Records there would have been no Rolling Stones… think on that…
Follow the Chess Records Essential playlist for more Chess classics.