Chess Records: The Original Blues Brothers

"WOW, YOU guys are really getting it on!" exclaimed Chuck Berry, observing the Rolling Stones cut 'Down The Road Apiece', a track he'd recorded himself just a few years earlier.

It was June, 1964, and this youthful British beat band were happily messing around at the Chess studio in Chicago as their older black musical idols watched on, intrigued. In the background Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson argued loudly about a woman from Kentucky. Muddy Waters, whose song 'Rollin' Stone', had supplied the English band with its moniker, even helped them bring in their equipment. Later on, they chatted with Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy.

Many of these Chicago blues legends were thrilled this group of Englishmen with long hair and pale faces were breathing new life into their decade-old songs. Ron Malo, the staff engineer at Chess, who recorded Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley back in the 1950's, helped to sharpen the British band's sound during their session. At the end of their 2 days, the Stones held a press conference outside the studio on South Michigan Avenue. With a hint of the madness they would let loose later on in the decade, it ended with a riot and a Chicago cop growling at them: "Get out of here or I'll lock up the whole goddamned bunch!"

Marshall Chess, son of Leonard, one of the 2 brothers who started the record label in 1947, had helped organise their visit. "At that time we didn't rent out the Chess Studios to outside people," he recalls. "But I was aware of the scene happening in England and I very much wanted to get into that scene myself. I was the same age." He also believes, "They were the same calibre as these great Chess bands." Several years later, Marshall would be managing the Stones and jumping gleefully into their hedonistic way of life. But if it were not for the poverty both his father and grandfather experienced in Poland, they may have never emigrated to America. "They were sleeping inside a house without heat, with a horse to keep them warm in the winter. The whole village moved to Chicago!"

That was in 1928. By the early 1940's, the two brothers, Leonard & Phil Chess, owned several bars and nightclubs in the black district of Chicago – the South Side. The Mocamba was their biggest club with Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Gene Ammons and other jazz stars of the day performing there. During this decade, a mass exodus of black Americans, exhausted by the racist-fuelled poverty of the Deep South, travelled to the booming industrial cities of the north, tempted by the promise of a better, richer, happier life.

But they were careful not to leave their music back in Alabama. The South Side became a bustling, dynamic, sometimes violent, neighbourhood with the blues echoing out of the drinking bars and dance clubs – a reassuring sound for the disorientated black immigrants. But there was a difference to the blues of the North. In Chicago, the rural blues music that black Southerners brought with them became increasingly amplified and refined. The musicians of the Windy City electrified the rural, country blues of the South to create a hipper, urban noise.

In 1947, Leonard and Phil Chess started signing local artists like Muddy Waters to Aristocrat Records – soon to become Chess Records. Their time managing various Chicago clubs gave them a feeling and understanding for what the black urban audience wanted to hear. It was Muddy Waters with his track, 'I Feel Like Goin' Home', that established the Chess brothers and Muddy himself in the black music business of the late '40's.

With Willie Dixon as in-house producer, Chess Records released a flow of seminal R&B masterpieces from the late 1940's, right through the '50's and into the 1960's. Apart from their label, Argo, which dealt primarily with jazz musicians like Sonny Stitt and James Moody, Chess focused strictly on blues and black rock & roll. 'Rocket 88', recorded by Jackie Brenston & his Delta Cats in March 1951, is now considered the very first rock & roll single.

Their intense focus on these two genres of music resulted in Leonard and Phil Chess declining Sam Phillips's offer to purchase Sun Records, whose roster included an unknown Elvis Aaron Presley. They later claimed, "We didn't consider ourselves a hillbilly label at that time." Nonetheless, it was Sun Records who sent the mighty Howlin' Wolf from Memphis to Chess Records just a few years later. He became one of the defining blues musicians of post-war America.

Marshall Chess, who started working at Chess when he was twelve, remembers the Chicago label as, "An amazing, happy place where there was a lot of laughter. It was full of these crazy, eccentric characters." The brilliant harmonica player, Sonny Boy Williamson II, was just one of the picaresque personalities who recorded for Chess. He discovered that whisky helped in the recording process. But once, after drinking too much, he leant against the studio wall and slid to the floor. Still clutching the microphone, Williamson finished cutting the song in the exact position he fell in.

The success of Chess continued into the Sixties. Their experiments in doo-wop and soul music, with acts like the Dells, Etta James, Billy Stewart and Fontella Bass, were certainly popular but often dwarfed by the might of Motown in Detroit and Atlantic Records in New York. In 1969, the Chess brothers sold the company to GRT for 6 million dollars but kept the publishing rights. Leonard Chess died just months later. Marshall Chess recalls that GRT were, "People from California who had no idea what they bought and ruined it day by day. I was made president and my uncle was actually forced out by them. After about a year, I quit. They wanted to run it like a steel business."

The following year, he was invited to run Rolling Stones Records. He accepted and for seven years worked with the Stones at their most decadent. He produced the band's notorious documentary, CS Blues, and was credited as executive producer on seven of their albums. Marshall has good memories of this time: "It was like having a fabulous, hot love affair that cools off at the end. People say, 'Do you still hang out with them?' I say, 'No, do you hang out with your ex-lover?' I loved that period of my life and I learnt a tremendous amount from it. But at the end, I began to realise that it was wearing me down. I was taking five kinds of drugs and heroin was just one of them."

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Chess Records, MCA have released 36 CDs this year. They're beautifully packaged, digitally remastered and include rare and unreleased songs as well as the pivotal recordings that so radically changed the landscape of 20th century music. The admiration that Marshall Chess still has for Chess Records, today, is palpable. "They put a disc in the Voyager space craft with all the cultural things of the earth on it and they put 'Johnny B. Goode' by Chuck Berry on it. I tell my children it's amazing that your grandfather produced a record and it's representing the earth to aliens." He adds, "I think that's pretty good for immigrants from Poland!"

© James Maycock, 1997

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