Immigrants from Poland, Leonard and Philip Chess got into the record business more or less by happenstance, and ended up creating one of the most revered labels of the 20th century, Chicago-based Chess Records. Founded in 1950, Chess became perhaps the most influential Blues label ever, issuing seminal records by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson and many others, while also becoming a force in early Rock and Roll, recording Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, among others.
Born Lejzor and Fiszel Czy?, the brothers were just boys when they emigrated from Poland to Chicago in 1928. Their entry into the music business came in 1946 when they bought a bar, the Macomba Lounge, in an African-American neighborhood on Chicago’s south side. As the brothers’ business thrived in Chicago’s postwar boom the Lounge became known as a hot spot for live music. While they weren’t musical visionaries in the mold of Sun Records’ Sam Phillips, the brothers did have an eye for a business opportunity, and they soon realized there was an untapped market for Blues, Jazz, and R&B, and decided to enter the record business. In 1947, Leonard bought into an existing label called Aristocrat, eventually bringing Philip in, taking over the label, and changing the name to Chess.
The first single issued on the label – “My Foolish Heart,” by Gene Ammons – was a hit, and the brothers followed it up with a string of successful singles by Mississippi-born Bluesman Muddy Waters. Chess quickly became known for its Blues releases and in the first half of the 50s Chess issued many recordings now considered classics, by artists including Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, and Howlin' Wolf. These recordings – many recorded at Chess’ in-house studio, at 2120 Michigan Avenue — would virtually define the sound of postwar American Blues, and would go on to inspire and influence many future Rock and Roll artists, especially the numerous groups to emerge from London’s Blues-obsessed music scene of the early 60s.
The Chess brothers found their first crossover success with records by two vocal groups, the Flamingos and the Moonglows, but it was the adding of Chuck Berry to their roster in 1955 that would be the Chess’ biggest contribution to Rock and Roll. Berry (who was sent to Chess by his idol Muddy Waters) issued all of his classic recordings on Chess, scoring many hits for the label. Bo Diddley was another early Rock and Roller to record for Chess; his first single for the label, 1955’s “Bo Diddley,” went to No. 1 on the R&B chart.
As the Chess brothers grew the label they worked in other genres including Jazz (Lou Donaldson, Ahmad Jamal, Yusef Lateef, Sonny Stitt ), Gospel (Rev. C.L Franklin, the Soul Stirrers), New Orleans-based R&B (Clarence "Frogman" Henry), and Soul (Fontella Bass, Etta James).
In 1969 the Chess brothers, looking to get out of music and into the television business, sold the label. Leonard Chess died suddenly a few months after the sale and Phil retired shortly after. Their story, and the story of Chess Records, has been dramatized in two feature films, Cadillac Records and Who Do You Love?