John is a former broadcaster, urban planner, comedy writer, and journalist living in Chicago.
Chess Records: Aristocratic Beginnings
Chess Records was one of the most influential blues, soul, and rock 'n' roll record labels of the 20th century. The origins of the label were in an R&B club called the Macomba Lounge located on the south side of Chicago. The nightclub was run by a pair of Polish immigrant brothers, Leonard and Phil Chess.
In 1947, Leonard bought a stake in Aristocrat Records, a Chicago rhythm and blues label. Over the next few years, Leonard acquired more and more shares in Aristocrat, such that by the end of 1949, the Chess brothers were sole owners of the company.
On June 3, 1950, the brothers officially changed the name of the label to Chess Records. That month, they issued their first release, a 78 rpm single by tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons: "My Foolish Heart" b/w "Bless You," the label's biggest hit of the year.
Chuck Berry & Bo Diddley
Chess Records remained steady on the R&B charts in the first half of the '50s. When rock 'n' roll emerged in 1954-55, the label was stocked with blues and R&B performers filled with crossover potential. In 1955, Chess signed two guitarists who launched the label into the mainstream and made the crossover complete: Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.
Bo Diddley struck first. He released his seminal single, “Bo Diddley” b/w “I’m A Man” in late March and it immediately became an R&B sensation, resulting in an appearance on *The Ed Sullivan Show*. Three months later, Chess Records released Chuck Berry's debut single, “Maybellene," which also hit #1 R&B, but also crossed over to #5 on the pop charts.
Over the next couple of years, Berry recorded "Roll Over Beethoven," "Too Much Monkey Business," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man,"and "You Can't Catch Me." Meanwhile, Diddley released "Pretty Thing," "Diddy Wah Diddy," and "Who Do You Love?" Every one of those is a rock 'n' roll classic. Given such inventory, it's not surprising the market for Chess Records grew as promotion and distribution became better financed.
In May 1957—largely bolstered by the revenue from Berry and Diddley sales—the Chess Brothers converted an old auto repair shop at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue into a state-of-the-art recording studio. One of the first songs recorded at the new location was Chuck Berry’s classic, “Rock and Roll Music,” which climbed to #6 on Billboard’s R&B chart and #8 on the Hot 100.
1958-1962: A Chess Golden Age
Other classic recordings on Chess soon followed. Not all were hits, but they all made an impact, in some cases thousands of miles away. Look at these partial discographies of Chess artists, just from 1958-62!
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- Chuck Berry – “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Reelin' And Rockin'," “Johnny B. Goode,” "Sweet Little Rock And Roller," "Little Queenie," "Almost Grown," "Back In The U.S.A.," "Memphis Tennessee," "Let It Rock"
- Muddy Waters – “I Live The Life I Love," "I Feel So Good," "Tiger In Your Tank," "Got My Mojo Working"
- Otis Rush – "So Many Roads, So Many Trains"
- Buddy Guy – "First Time I Met the Blues," "Stone Crazy," "When My Left Eye Jumps"
- Howlin’ Wolf – "Sittin' On Top Of The World," "Mister Airplane Man," "Spoonful," Wang Dang Doodle," "Back Door Man," "The Red Rooster," "Goin' Down Slow," "I Ain't Superstious"
The British Are Coming
When the British Invasion hit in 1964, the Chess Records studio was a mecca for blues, R&B, soul, and rock 'n' roll artists. The Rolling Stones were profoundly influenced by the label and made pilgrimages to the studio in June and November 1964. The sessions at 2120 S. Michigan produced their first U.S. hit, the Bobby Womack-penned, “It’s All Over Now,” their second U.S. hit and their first Top 10 (“Time Is On My Side"), a funky instrumental titled after the address of the studio, and even the first demo for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
Chess in the Mid-1960s
An interesting fact about Chess Studios is that it attracted musicians from other labels, who used the studio and its stable of house musicians and producers to record their hits. For example, Barbara Lewis recorded “Hello Stranger” at Chess in 1963, but for Atlantic. Similarly, The Buckinghams’ smash hit “Kind of a Drag” was cut at Chess, but hit #1 in early 1967 for tiny USA Records.
Of course, the Chess Records stable of artists churned out hits at 2120 S. Michigan throughout the mid-1960s, sometimes for the parent label, other times for the Checker subsidiary. Some of these later hits include Billy Stewart’s “I Do Love You” and “Summertime,” Gene Chandler’s “To Be A Lover," Sonny Boy Williamson's "Bring It On Home," and Fontella Bass’ epic, “Rescue Me."
Chess in the Late 1960s
By the late 1960s, Chess had moved their main recording studio to a larger warehouse building a few blocks away. The illness and eventual death of founder Leonard Chess in 1969, together with changes in the music industry spelled the end of the label in the mid 1970s. The rights to the label’s catalog is now owned by Universal Music Group and managed by Geffen Records.
In 1985, Willie Dixon sued Led Zeppelin for failing to include Dixon on the songwriting credits of their hit “Whole Lotta Love.” The suit settled out of court two years later, bringing a huge windfall to Dixon, who then used the funds to improve blues appreciation and music education in Chicago. As a result, the former Chess Records Studios at 2120 South Michigan Avenue is now home to Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation.
Angel Guzman from Joliet, Illinois on June 08, 2017:
I went there on a field trip when I went to college in the south loop :)
Eric Washington from Rochester, NY on October 08, 2012:
I was ironically watching an episode of Unsung and they were talking about Chess Records.