Founded in Chicago, in 1950, by two Polish immigrants, Leonard and Phil Chess – formerly Czyz – Chess Records quickly became home to some of the world’s most important blues and rock’n’roll artists, among them Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry. With a wide-ranging history that also takes in jazz, soul and psychedelic rock, Chess Records remains one of the most important labels in the history of music. As Marshall Chess, son of Leonard, tells uDiscover Music – with no small amount of understatement – “Without Chess, I don’t think rock would have sounded the same.
“My father’s nickname with the musicians was Footstomper. He wanted that big backbeat,” Marshall continues. “Not many people know this, and I found this out at Chuck Berry’s funeral – I met people who were there when he recorded ‘Maybellene’ and they told me, ‘Your father was part of the birth of rock’n’roll. Not just Chess Records. He pushed Chuck Berry to amplify the guitar. He pushed for the big beat. And I was so blown away by that. I wasn’t there then, so I never knew that he was the one.”
Born in 1942, Marshall was eight when the label launched – “just along the ride” and “lucky to be born in it”, he says. “My father and uncle, they were immigrants from Poland, without a toilet. And they came to Chicago and made this great music that we’re still talking about now.”
Marshall Chess, however, launched his own Chess subsidiary in 1967, Cadet Concept, the label that gave the world Rotary Connection and took Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to the psychedelic rock audience with plugged-in albums Electric Mud and The Howlin’ Wolf Album. “That was my thing. I was from that era: LSD, rock’n’roll, hippie, alternative radio,” Marshall says. “That’s why I made those first albums with my label. I wanted to expand into that.”
He’d learned the family business from an early age. Starting to work in the summer holidays, when he was 13, Marshall’s first job was to break up the cardboard boxes that Chess records would arrive in. “All my summers were there,” he says. “I was always around. I had a little motorbike I would ride to work. It’s almost as if your dad was in the circus… I loved the atmosphere and I wanted to be around my dad. The only way I could have a relationship with him was to go to work.” When he left university, Marshall Chess joined the family business full-time. “I said, ‘Dad, what’s my job?’ And he said, ‘Motherf__ker, your job’s watching me!’”
Immersed in Chess Records from an early age, Marshall Chess finds it almost impossible to pick his favourite songs from the label. “They all live with me,” he says. “It’s part of my life.”
There is, however, one song in particular that he can honestly claim to be his favourite. Marshall Chess reveals it to uDiscover Music below, kicking off an exclusive introduction to Chess Records, as seen through the eyes of a man who was there when most of it happened.
Chuck Berry: ‘Maybellene’ (1955)
Marshall Chess: I have one favourite: Chuck Berry, ‘Maybellene’. That came out in 1955 and I was 13. My life changed. Before that were a strictly blues label. We sold music to black people, who, in America, didn’t even have record players. And there were no record shops in the black neighbourhoods in the 40s. People bought records at the barber shop, at the general store. The biggest blues hit could have been 20,000, 30,000 [sales]. Most of them sold 8,000, 10,000, 15,000 at 25 cents. It wasn’t a lot of money, in other words. Even though we were having hits, I was living in a third-floor walk-up apartment.
My son, years and years ago, wanted to meet Chuck Berry. He was 88 years old and he was touring his final tour, and he was in New York at a club called BB King’s. I hadn’t seen Chuck in about 10 years. I knew him very well. And I said, “When that came out, everything changed.” You know, we moved to a house. And he took my hand, and tears were sort of in his eyes, and he said, “What are you talking about? Don’t you think my life also changed in 1955?” Because he was the first black guy that made money – enough. He made money and he sacrificed a lot. He gave away the writer’s share on ‘Maybellene’ for the first few years to the DJ, Alan Freed, who broke the record. Played it all night long in New York over and over. So that’s why it’s my favourite. It affected my life so much.
Muddy Waters: ‘Mannish Boy’ (1955), ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ (1954)
Marshall Chess: My No.2 favourite artist at Chess was Muddy Waters, whom I was also very close with, and also was our first star – our biggest blues star. And also a close friend of my father’s. First time I met him he was like an alien from outta space. He came to the house and I was, I don’t know, I might have been 11 or 10, and he had on a bright-green fluorescent suit with shoes that were made out of – you could see the skin, like a pony skin. You could see the hair on them. He was a sharp-dressed man, with that really high, processed hair. And he came out of his car and he said, “You must be young Chess. I’m here to see your pappy.” And that’s how I met him… I love so many of his songs but I would pick ‘Mannish Boy’ and ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’.
Bo Diddley: ‘Bo Diddley’ (1955)
Marshall Chess: 1955 was a banner year for Chess and this was one of the first crossovers that white people bought… [Chess] exploded with white people in the UK first. Way before America. America, we noticed when Muddy Waters played the Newport Jazz Festival… and we put out Muddy Waters At Newport . That album was the beginning of the album business… and we noticed that, in Boston, in the New England area, people were buying that album – more than we’d ever sold. And it was people that went to that festival. That’s when we first saw this white market in America growing.
Howlin’ Wolf: ‘Smokestack Lightnin’’ (1956), ‘Evil’ (1954)
Marshall Chess: My two favourites – even though I probably have 10 favourites – I would say ‘Smokestack Lightnin’’ and ‘Evil’… Being around those blues lyrics as a young kid, talking to those guys, what it instilled in me about life at a very young age – about pain and trouble – like the lyric, “Another mule is kicking in your stall.” I didn’t know what that meant. You know what that means? Another man is f__king your wife or your girlfriend. But I would ask that, find that out. I’d have to figure that out when I was 14. So yeah, that changed me immensely as a person.
Sonny Boy Williamson II: ‘Help Me’ (1963)
Marshall Chess: Another artist that, really, I just loved so much was Sonny Boy Williamson. He was such a character. And my favourite song of his is ‘Help Me’. Mainly because, as a young kid I was exposed to all these lyrics – many of them sexual and many of them psychological, like ‘Help Me’. And I’d hear them over and over again. In fact, I always tell people this. They ask me: what did these blues guys talk to you about? I was a kid! You know what they would always ask me? Did I get any yet? Had I had sex yet? “You get any yet, motherf__ker?” I mean, the lyrics are all about women and sex – a lot of ’em. And about problems. And, of course, growing up, I had problems. And ‘Help Me’ – you know, you’ve got that feeling when you’re growing up.
Little Walter: ‘Juke’ (1952)
Marshall Chess: Little Walter changed the whole face of blues. He was a harmonica player in Muddy Waters’ band and he had a very big ego. He wanted to go on his own, and his first record was ‘Juke’, an instrumental. My uncle always used to tell me, “You know, before ‘Juke’, blues bands didn’t have harmonica players. But after ‘Juke’, which was such a big hit, every band had an amplified harmonica.” Miles Davis once told me Little Walter was a genius. He listened to him a lot.
My younger sister, Elaine, they used to always have her listen to a record, both sides, and say, “Which is the A and B?” We felt some melody or something that would attract her would be the right A-side. And with Little Walter, with ‘Juke’, at that time we had a building with an awning in front of it by the bus stop – it was a few feet away. And with no air conditioning, man – hot Chicago, hot summer. Doors open in the summer. And when they were playing Little Walter’s first session, when they were playing that ‘Juke’ record, someone at the front noticed these women all dancing around by the bus stop. And that inspired them to rush that right out.
Marshall Chess: There was all these Chess hits that I liked. Bobby Moore And The Rhythm Aces, ‘Searching For My Baby’. Loved that. We had these great doo-wop records, and I lived some of the doo-wop. I loved The Moonglows: ‘Ten Commandments Of Love’, ‘Sincerely’. And then you get into the 60s: Fontella bass, ‘Rescue Me’. Billy Stewart, ‘Summertime’. Etta James, ‘At Last’. And then, of course, The Dells – I could keep naming artists. I loved Rotary Connection, that was my group that I founded. That last track that they made when I was just leaving, ‘I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun’. Fantastic. Great song.
Then you go into what’s called Northern soul now. That blew me away. Only in England, when I discovered all those Northern soul songs. A lot of them I was involved in – executive producing or involved – that were never even hits that Northern soul people love. So that’s also a buzz. It never stops. It’s such an amazing repertoire of music that goes from the 40s right until Chess was sold [in 1969]. We had this tremendous creative output.
Follow the Chess Records Essential playlist on Spotify.