Chess Records is considered to be one of most important cornerstones of Rock & Roll and is the birthplace of Electric Blues music. Chess Records started out as an R&B label and was home to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Etta James, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor and Chuck Berry. Almost all of the top British Invasion bands were influenced by Chess recording artists and covered their songs, which were originally released on the Chess label, or its subsidiary labels; Checker, Argo, and Cadet.
Chess Records was founded in 1950 by two Polish immigrant brothers, Lejzor and Fiszel Czyz, who’s names were later changed to Leonard Chess and Philip Chess respectively when they came to America. The Chess brothers owned several bars and nightclubs in Chicago. Several delta bluesmen who migrated to Chicago in the 1930’s and 1940’s performed at their nightclubs, such as the Macomba. Leonard and Phil Chess discovered these artists were not being recorded so they became a partners with Charles and Evelyn Aron at Aristocrat Records in 1947 to record R&B and blues artists, such as Muddy Waters. When Phil became a partner in 1949, he and Leonard bought out the Arons, and changed the company name to Chess Records in June of 1950.
Chess released several blues masters that were recorded by Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service (later Sun Records), most notably early songs by Howlin’ Wolf. He later signed with Chess records to pursue a successful career in Chicago. What is widely considered to be the first Rock & Roll song, Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” was also picked up and released by Chess in 1951.
Muddy Waters encouraged Chuck Berry to audition for Chess, and he recorded almost his entire career there. Chuck auditioned with a song that he had written called “Ida-Red”. Leonard and Phil suggested he change the title to Maybellene, and it became his first of many Top 40 hits including Roll Over Beethoven, Johnny B Goode, Sweet Little Sixteen, Rock & Roll Music, and School Day (Ring, Ring Goes the Bell).
Chess subsidiary, Checker recorded top doo-wop artists such as the Flamingos, the Dells and the Moonglows. Checker was also home to one of finest blues harp players, Little Walter (Juke), as well as rocker Bo Diddley (Before You Accuse Me (Take a Look at Yourself))
Chess and their subsidiaries also released hits by recording artists from New Orleans such as Bobby Charles, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, and Dale Hawkins, who recorded the original swamp rock version of “Susie-Q”.
Checker Records also released Gospel music by the Soul Stirrers, The Five Blind Boys, and the Rev. C.L. Franklin. In fact they released an album by his daughter, Aretha Franklin prior to her becoming the queen of soul at Atlantic Records. Her very first recording “Never Grow Old” was rereleased in 1957!.
Argo was Chess Jazz subsidiary label which featured artists Gene Ammons, Amhad Jamal and Ramsey Lewis trio. Etta James became a huge blues/soul artist on Argo in 1960 with the release of her album “At Last”, which Lenard and Phil produced.
The Cadet Concept label was ran by Leonard’s son, Marshall Chess, who used it to promote his ensemble the Rotary Connection which featured Minnie Riperton. This label included the album release “Electric Mud” by Muddy Waters and the psychedelic classic “Pictures of Matchstick Men” by the Status Quo.
The Rolling Stones named their band after a song on Muddy Waters debut LP, and they even recorded a complete album at Chess studios in 1964 titled 12×5, which included an instrumental song named after the studio address titled “2120 South Michigan Ave”. Their 1st hit record, “It’s All Over Now” was also released as a single off of this album.
The Chess brothers sold the label in 1969 to GRT and in 1975 recording operations closed down and it became a reissue label.