I just watched a brilliant documentary on Chess Records, one of the greatest record labels of all time. I suggest you do the same. Here’s a bit of info I learned from watching it.
The label was founded in 1950 by Leonard Chess, a Polish immigrant in Chicago. At the time Chicago was a popular place for immigrants, especially black people driven away from the racism of the southern states. Leonard heard the blues music they played and loved it. Working with his brother, Phil, they produced great electric blues artists such as Muddy Waters and Little Walter, artists who wrote from the soul and whose music and lyrics really captured the black community.
In 1955 artists like Bo Diddly joined Chess Records with a new sound – Rock and Roll. Chuck Berry, a huge Muddy Waters fan, travelled to Chicago to meet his idol, who pointed him in the direction of Chess Records. Chuck signed to the label and the partnership created many great hits together, including Johnny B. Goode, Maybellene, and Roll Over Beethoven. This week’s album, One Dozen Berrys, was also released on Chess. The white teenage population of America latched onto the rock ‘n’ roll sound, and Chess Records grew, with its artists appearing on television and performing well in the charts.
In 1963, Leonard and Phil bought a radio station and rebranded it to be WVON – the voice of the negro. It played purely black music. It was Leonard’s way of giving back to Chicago’s black community that had given him so much.
With the British Invasion of British bands in the mid 1960’s, the Rolling Stones bought blues to the white people of America. The Rolling Stone’s early repertoire included many Chess covers, songs that had been released ten years before. The band even take their name from a Muddy Waters song. In the documentary, I found it very poignant when Public Enemy’s Chuck D says “It’s kind of blinding when it comes to the point that a bunch of guys from the UK have to introduce blues to America.”
Leonard continued to expand the boundaries of Chess Records, and it became a pioneer of soul music, with stars such as Etta James and Fontella Bass, whose Rescue Me was a huge hit. In the late 60’s, pushed by Leonard’s son, Marshall, psychedelic music was added to the labels diverse sound, with the Rotary Connection. Even Muddy Waters was convinced into recording the cult psychedelic album Electric Mud.
Following the assassination of Martin Luther King and the political riots of the late 1960’s, Chess Records became a target. There was a lot of pressure on Leonard, as a white man seen to be making money from black artists, and he sold the company. Not long afterwards, Leonard died of a heart attack. GRT, who had bought the label, failed to realise what they had and Chess crumbled.
In a time of great political change and musical discovery, Leonard and Phil’s label played a huge part in history. They were pioneer of blues, rock ‘n’ roll and soul music, and helped in the fight against racism in 1960’s America. Thank you Chess Records.