Phil Chess, co-founder of Chicago’s legendary Chess Records, has died at the age of 95. Born Fiszel Czyz in Motol, Poland, in 1921, he changed his name after moving to Chicago, a city with a large Polish population and a home of the blues. With his brother Leonard, he founded Chess Records in 1950. Just a year later, one of the first great rock and roll records, Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” was released by Chess (Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats got the credit, but it was actually Ike Turner’s band). Later came strings of hits by Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson. Etta James’ “At Last,” a perennial hit and wedding song, was a Chess record.
Chess Records’ biggest star, however, was Chuck Berry, who inspired the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and scores of other young white bands in the 1960’s. Songs like “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and others were etched into a million young minds like my own, and were covered countless times afterwards.
I remember the first time I heard Berry’s “School Days.” I was nine and in the back seat of my father’s beautiful new Lincoln Continental Mark IV. We were in Fresno visiting my mother’s older sister Ruth. Aunt Ruth and Uncle Paul didn’t really like children; they were childless and very anal-retentive about their home on Swift Avenue. My father hated family trips as well. A dust storm in Bakersfield had just polished off the shine on the paint of the new Lincoln, and my dad was in a foul mood. Then Berry’s “School Days” came out over the a.m. radio, and I was transported from the gloom into a happier place.
Chess Records also produced terrific jazz on its subsidiary labels, Argo and, later, Cadet. Argo and Cadet featured great jazz artists such as Ahmad Jamal, James Moody, Benny Golson, and Ramsey Lewis, whose song “The In Crowd” was a huge hit. And let us not forget Checker Records, another subsidiary, that the inimitable Bo Diddley recorded for, along with the fabulous doo-wop group The Flamingos and the R&B group The Moonglows.
I find it interesting that while Sun Records was founded by an American producer (Sam Phillips), some of my favorite record labels were founded by immigrants. For example, Atlantic Records was founded by Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, who were the children of Turkish diplomats and came from Istanbul via London where they served as Turkish ambassadors. Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff escaped Hitler’s Germany to found Blue Note Records in 1939. Then there were the Chess brothers from Poland. Sun, Chess, Blue Note, and Atlantic together produced a titanic number of great American hits. We should all be grateful for it.
For die-hard fans with deep pockets, a big heavy box of 15 CD’s called The Chess Story 1947-1975 would be an amazing Christmas present. For the appreciative fan on a more modest budget, check-out the nice double CD set, The History of Chess Jazz.
In 2000, I interviewed author Nadine Cohodas about her book on Chess Records called Spinning Blues into Gold:The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records. I took the DAT aircheck out of the Café LA archives and the audio is available here for your enjoyment. Cohodas did a great job capturing the energy and charisma of this iconic American music label.