A Potted History of Chess (& Checker) Records on ZANI

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Leonard (1917-1969) and Phil Chess (1921- ) were two young Jewish immigrants from Poland. In the late 20s they started in the liquor business and soon owned a night club and several bars in Chicago's Southside.
The brothers loved the music of the African Americans brought to the Chicago by the mass migration from the south. They took every opportunity to feature the best in their night clubs (708 Club and the Macombo). The Chess Brothers saw the potential to promote ethnic music to a wider audience and bought fledgling Aristocrat Records (The Aristocrat of Records) in partnership with Charles and Evelyn Aron in 1947. Soon after they became sole owners and renamed the company, Chess Records (1950). At first Phil oversaw the nightclub and offices of Aristocrat/Chess, whilst Leonard scouted for talent around the Chicago clubs and produced many of the recording sessions. Once the label was firmly established, Phil spent more time on the road promoting records and maintaining contacts with DJs and radio station personnel. Leonard also acted as A&R man hand delivering fresh recordings to local radio stations. One of the first musicians to take their interest was slide guitarist from Arkansas called Robert Lee McCollum (aka Robert Lee McCoy and Robert Nighthawk). Robert Nighthawk settled in Memphis and jammed with many of the Mississippi greats. He moved to Chicago as a session player and then appeared as Robert Nighthawk recording "My Sweet Lovin' Woman."

Willie Dixon (bass) was at the recording session and he would later prove a most valuable attribute for Chess penning over 500 blues compositions as well as playing bass on innumerable records.

Mississippi blues man, McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters) signed to Aristocrat Records and accompanied on piano and bass recorded "Gypsy Woman" and "Little Anna Mae." Because of their local city connections the Chess brothers built Muddy Waters into Chicago's leading blues singer. Gene Ammons (saxophonist) joined the label in 1950 and debuted with “1426” and "My Foolish Heart”; Jimmy Rogers (guitar) signed up and released "That's All Right" and "Luedella." Joe Williams and John Lee Hooker joined the label soon after. Little Walter Jacobs (harmonica) was already a member of Muddy Waters’ band and found himself recording solo hits like "Mean Old World," "Off The Wall," "You're So Fine."

When Chess formed a subsidiary label called Checker (1952) Little Walter recorded solo instrumental called "Juke" which topped the Rhythm and Blues charts. Three year later he repeated this with the classic "My Babe" (written by Willie Dixon). Eager to expand Leonard began working with other record producers outside Chicago.

Sam Phillips (founder of Sun Records) was in Memphis and had recorded Chester Burnette (aka Howlin’ Wolf) then leased the songs to Chess Records. "How Many More Years" and B side, "Moanin in the Moonlight" were hits for Howlin’ Wolf in 1951.

As the brothers reputation for fairness spread a host of other blues legends recorded for Chess Records. These included: Roscoe Gordon (Booted - 1952), Memphis Minnie (Me And My Chauffeur -1952), Rufus Thomas, Etta James, Dr. Isaiah Ross, Joe Hill Louis, Elmore James, Bobby Bland, Memphis Slim, Eddie Boyd (24 Hours and Third Degree - 1953), Lowell Fulson, Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, and Willie Mabon (I Don't Know – 1952; and I'm Mad - 1953).

Chess were keen to embrace the full range of contemporary ‘colour music’ (that was the term used) and signed and recorded two black vocal groups, the Flamingos (I’ll be home - 1954); and the Moonglows (Sincerely - 1956). The songs were more sentimental and poppy than R&B or rock’n’roll which gave them wider appeal. Both were very quickly covered by white artists, Pat Boon and the McGuire Sisters respectively and their versions became hits in the pop charts. Although frustrating for the original artists who were well outsold it did reinforce Chess Records could produce hit records.

The brothers continued with the Blues catalogue by signing Rice Miller (aka Sonny Boy Williamson II) to the Checker label in 1955 and released “Don’t start me talkin.’ In the same year Muddy Waters introduced Chuck Berry who came for an audition and sang his own composition "Ida Red". Leonard and Phil loved it but asked him to rename the song which became, "Maybellene." Chuck’s style was difficult to emulate which gave him a tremendous advantage over other artists overshadowed by white cover versions. Chuck stayed with Chess Record until 1966 releasing some of his best rock’n’roll songs ever recorded, including: "Roll Over Beethoven," "Johnny B. Goode," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Rock and Roll Music," "Memphis," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" and "School Day."

When Elias McDaniels came to audition he too sang a self penned song "Uncle John". Like Berry, the brothers liked it but suggested a name change. Bo Diddley and B side, I’m a man became a massive hit. Throughout the rest of the fifties the Bo Diddley Beat with its distinctive "Shave and a Haircut" rhythm became a staple for Checker Records.

In 1956, Chess signed New Orleans’s artists Paul Gayten and Clarence "Frogman" Henry and more hits followed; "Ain't Got No Home," "(I Don't Know Why) But I Do," and "You Always Hurt the One You Love."

Whilst mainly a singles record company Chess did release albums and the first release was a soundtrack to the movie "Rock, Rock, Rock" (1956). The popular rise of rock’n’roll in the mid fifties did correspond to a steep decline in popularity for the blues in the US. However mainstays like Muddy Waters, Sony Boy Williamson and Howlin Wolf continued to produce some of their works, including: "Back Door Man," "The Red Rooster," and "Hidden Charms" (all written by Willie Dixon); and "Smokestack Lightnin'."

Chess also established a jazz subsidiary called Marterry then Argo (later called Cadet in 1965). The intention was to release album rather than singles and over the years they built an impressive stable of influential jazz artists like Sonny Stitt, James Moody, Yusef Lateef, Gene Ammons, Lou Donaldson, Lorez Alexandria, Ahmad Jamal and Ramsey Lewis. Their religious and gospel catalogues were also extensive and included the first recordings of Aretha Franklin as well as the Five Blind Boys, Soul Stirrers, Alex Bradford and the Violinaires.  

Initially Leonard and Phil Chess handled production but as the label grew other staff joined including A&R Director and chief producer, Ralph Bass (King Records) and producer, Roqule Billy Davis. By the 60s a new crop of talent blossomed at Chess Records. Willie Dixon had recruited younger Chicago blues talent, signing guitarists Buddy Guy ("First Time I Met The Blues" and "Broken Hearted Blues") and Otis Rush (1960's "So Many Roads, So Many Trains"). Etta James debuted with four hits in the same year and followed this up in 1961 with "At Last" and "Trust In Me"; in 1962 she had another hit with "Something's Got A Hold On Me." Other female artists signed with Chess during the mid-1960s, including: Jan Bradley ("Mama Didn't Lie"), Sugar Pie De Santo ("Slip-In Mules"), ("I Had A Talk With My Man"), Fontella Bass ("Rescue Me"), Jackie Ross ("Selfish One"), Jo Ann Garrett ("Stay By My Side"), Laura Lee ("Dirty Man"), and the Gems (which included Minnie Riperton). Along with Little Milton, were the Dells, ("There Is" and "Stay In My Corner"), the Radiants ("Voice Your Choice"), Billy Stewart ("Summertime," "Sitting In The Park"), Bobby Moore & the Rhythm Aces ("Searching For My Love"), Tony Clarke, James Phelps, and Bobby McClure.

In 1964 Tommy Tucker had a huge hit with "Hi-Heel Sneakers," whilst the Ramsey Lewis Trio broke through with instrumental remakes of "The In Crowd" and "Hang On Sloopy." The last blues hit to come from Checker was Wang Dang Doodle was sung by Koko Taylor.

The location of Chess Records changed over the years but the best known address was 2120 South Michigan Avenue (1956 -1965). When the Rolling Stones came to the US on their first tour in 1964, the band recorded "2120 South Michigan" at the Chess studios. The building now houses Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation. Billy Davis was the producer responsible for much of the soul music output which took the Chess stable into the mid sixties but in 1968 he left and when Leonard Chess became more involved in a black radio station he owned called WVON (Voice of the Negro), other creative producers and songwriters followed. Leonard’s son Marshall took over but eventually in 1969 Leonard and Phil Chess sold Chess to General Recorded Tape (GRT) for an estimated 6.5 million dollars. Leonard Chess died in 1969.

Worth a listen
Robert Nighthawk
My Sweet Lovin' Woman (1948)

McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters)
Gypsy Woman (1947)
Little Anna Mae (1947)
Rollin Stone (Catfish Blues) (1950)
I just want to make love to you (1954)
Hoochie Coochie Man (1954)
Mannish boy (1955)
Trouble to you (1955)
Got my mojo working (1957)

Gene Ammons
My Foolish Heart (1950)

Jimmy Rogers
Luedella (1950)
That's All Right (1950)
Walkin by myself (1950)

John Lee Hooker
I’m in the mood (1951)

Chester Burnette (aka Howlin’ Wolf)
How Many More Years (1951)
Moanin in the Moonlight (1951)
Smokestack Lightnin' (1956)
Spoonful (1960)
Little red rooster (1961)
Built for comfort (1963)
Killing floor (1965)

Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland
Booted (1951)
Crying all night (1952)
Good lovin’ (1952)

Darling I know (1951)

Little Walter
Juke (1952)
You're So Fine (1954)
My Babe (1955)

Roscoe Gordon
Booted (1952)

Memphis Minnie
Me And My Chauffeur (1952)

Willie Mabon
I Don't Know (1952)
I'm Mad (1953)

Elmore James
Country Boogie (1953)

Eddie Boyd
24 Hours (1953)
Third Degree (1953)

Lowell Fulson
Reconsider baby (1954)

The Flamingos
I’ll be home (1954)

Elias McDaniels (aka Bo Didley)
Bo Diddley (1954)
I’m a man (1954)
You can’t judge a book (1961)
Pretty thing (1956)

The Moonglows
Sincerely (1956)

Rice Miller (aka Sonny Boy Williamson II)
Don’t start me talking (1955)

Chuck Berry
Maybellene (1955)
Roll Over Beethoven (1956)
School Days (1957)
Rock and Roll Music (1957)
Sweet Little Sixteen (1957)
Johnny B. Goode (1958)
Carol (1958)
Little Queenie (1959)
Come on (1961)

Clarence "Frogman" Henry
Ain't Got No Home (1956)
(I Don't Know Why) But I Do (1961)
You Always Hurt the One You Love (1961)

Buddy Guy
First Time I Met The Blues (1960)
Ten years ago (1961)

Etta James
At Last (1961)
Trust In Me (1961)
Something's Got A Hold On Me (1962)

Little Milton
Blind man (1961)
We’re gonna make it (1965)
Who’s cheatin’ now (1965)

Jan Bradley
Mama Didn't Lie (1963)

Tommy Tucker
Hi-Heel Sneakers (1964)

Sugar Pie De Santo
Slip-In Mules (No high heeled sneakers) (1964)

Jackie Ross
Selfish One (1964)

The Radiants
Voice Your Choice (1964)

Fontella Bass
Rescue Me (1965)

Laura Lee
Dirty Man (1967)

The Dells (formally El-Rays)
Stay In My Corner (1968)

Billy Stewart
I do love you (1965)
Sitting in the park (1965)
Summertime (1966)

Ramsey Lewis Trio
The In Crowd (1965)

Bobby Moore & the Rhythm Aces
Searching For My Love (1966)

Koko Taylor
Wang Dang Doodle (1966)

Article Kippen C. 2015 Cameron K's blog Retrieved from
Cameron K's Blog

Read 3808 times Last modified on Sunday, 24 January 2016 16:00
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