Chess Records

Chess Records

Earlier this November I had the privilege and pleasure to visit the former Chess Records (1956-65) building in Chicago. It is an important landmark in the history of Blues and R&R music. It is now home to the Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation and hosts tours of the partially restored original recording Studio room ‘B’ and the small room which was Studio ‘A’. Firstly a thank-you to the Dixon Family for preserving this gem. Also a nod to the fantastic tour guide who’s name I didn’t catch but he’s from Manchester so if you go there and are lucky enough to have him you’ll know who I mean. They have lots of photos, great memorabilia and a neat little gift shop (got the t-shirt). I’ve long been a fan of Chess Records and the music they produced, so if you read this post there are spoilers for the tour but my words can’t hold a candle to that experience. I’m happy that this, my 100th blog post coincides with a personally meaningful visit to one of my music ‘meca’s’.

One of the most iconic and recognizable R&R songs “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry was recorded at that building, it’s #7 on Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”

Started by two brothers Phil and Leonard from Poland who arrived in Chicago as children with their mother and sister. They joined their father who was working in the Al Capone controlled liquor business during the Prohibition years. The family changed their name from Czyż to Chess and also adopted more American first names. Eventually the family got into the ‘scrap’ business and across the street was a church, and it was there the young brothers got their first introduction to Black Gospel. As described by our tour guide the boys thought they were listening to the sounds of heaven and so their love of music began.

Phil, Marshall and his father Leonard Chess

It would lead from having ownership in several liquor stores (by then legal), to Jazz Clubs and eventually the Macomba Lounge. After the club burned down, Leonard would buy a part of Aristocrat Records in 1947 and by 1950 joined by his brother Phil they would gain complete control and rename it Chess Records. While they occupied several buildings, the 2120 S. Michigan Avenue represents their most prolific period. Willie Dixon was the the de facto A&R man; in addition to being a recording artist, their prolific staff songwriter and producer. Among the first records was “Rollin’ Stone” by the legendary blues artist Muddy Waters. Sun Records and Sam Phillips would partner with Chess Records which led to landing such artists as Howlin’ Wolf, a key figure in early R&B.

Etta James recorded her stunning version of “At Last” in Studio ‘B’, sitting in that very place while it was being played back…it was a bit surreal. Listed on Rolling Stone magazines list of the 500 Greatest Albums.

Chess would also record under subsidiary labels such as Checker and Argo. In addition to the key figures of Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters, you will recognize most of these names that recorded at Chess in the 1950’s; Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, The Moonglows, The Flamingos, Benny Goodman, Dale Hawkins, John Lee Hooker and of course Chuck Berry who made records exclusively with Chess from 1955 to 1966. More on Berry in this post from October 2018. In the 1960’s Etta James, Fontella Bass, Koko Taylor, Little Milton, Laura Lee, and Tommy Tucker. Leonard Chess, who was really the driving force in the family business would branch out into Radio Stations and other ventures. A few months after  selling Chess to General Recorded Tape in 1969 he died of a heart attack.

Fontella Bass recorded her #1 R&B chart song “Rescue Me” in the same legendary studio at Chess Records in 1965.

Chess Records are remembered in the fictionalized accounts of ‘Cadillac Records’ and ‘Who Do You Love?’ two movies from 2008. I read the book “Spinning Blues into Gold” by Nadine Cohodas which was very interesting, also there is “The Story of Chess Records” by John Collis, “The Record Men” by Rich Cohen and “The Batsford Book of Chess Records” by Iakov Damsky among others.

Andrew Loog Oldham was just 19 years old when in 1963 he signed the Rolling Stones and became their manager. In 1965 he arranged for the then somewhat struggling (in America) band to record at Chess Records. According to our tour guide the band was recording “2120 South Michigan Avenue” in Studio ‘B’ when Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy walked in to listen. Mick Jagger was so starstruck and nervous he couldn’t sing and the song became an instrumental as the studio wouldn’t give them more time to redo the song. Not sure if its all true or just Chess studio myth but nevertheless a great story. The whole band was humbled when they met their idols, in particular Muddy Waters whose song Rollin’ Stone (Catfish Blues) inspired the name “The Rolling Stones”. While there, they did manage to cut several songs, mostly blues covers, in addition to “2120” the song “Empty Heart” were originals. They would release the Chess brothers produced songs on an EP titled “5 X 5”.

Chess Trivia

Willie Dixon wrote a song called “Bring it on Home” which was first recorded by Sonny Boy Williamson January 11, 1963 at Chess Records. He also wrote a song called “You Need Love” recorded by Muddy Waters released in November of 1962, also at Chess Records. If you listen to both of these in order you hear parts that appear in this song released in November of 1969 by Led Zeppelin “Whole Lotta Love“. As they had done on more than one occasion Led Zeppelin did not credit original writers, in this case Willie Dixon. They rightfully claim their song sounds nothing like the Dixon songs, however you just can’t lift lines and music from other people’s songs-even if you change it and happen to be one of the greatest Rock bands of all time. Willie’s daughter Shirli Dixon had prompted her father to pursue Led Zeppelin for royalties and a writing credit and an out of court settlement was reached. She also helped him recoup underpaid and unpaid royalties from Chess Records, with Muddy Waters they successfully sued ARC Music the publishing company that owned the Chess song copyrights.  Shirli and her mother Marie were also responsible for the purchase of the old Chess building, it’s restoration and maintaining the Foundation.


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2 thoughts on “Chess Records

  1. Randy, congratulations on this being your 100th blog! I have enjoyed reading every one of your blogs. I remember that prior to your start in blogging, you would put together song mixes on CDs for us. Some of the music was 'strange music' (as our buddy Steve would say!) yet always interesting as you would tell us info / history about the song. From all of us who read your blogs – thanks for deepening our knowledge and enjoyment of music!


  2. What an experience. The tour guide really did cover all angles; he was so passionate about the music, the history, and even the design process informing the acoustics and soundproofing of the studio. Very impactful sitting in Studio B listening to “At Last” with Etta’s mic placed exactly where she’d position it for view of the control room. To think the label’s regulars were enough to leave Mick Jagger speechless and lead to an instrumental Rolling Stones track.


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