- Chess Records
Chess Records Founded 1950 Founder Leonard Chess
Status Inactive since 1975 Genre Blues
Rock and roll
Country of origin United States Location Chicago, Illinois
Run by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, the company produced and released many important singles and albums, which are now regarded as central to the rock music canon. Musician and critic Cub Koda described Chess Records as "America's greatest blues label."
Chess Records was based at several different locations on the south side of Chicago, Illinois, initially at two different locations on South Cottage Grove Ave. The most famous location was 2120 S. Michigan Avenue from around 1956 to 1965, immortalized by British rock group The Rolling Stones in "2120 South Michigan Avenue", an instrumental recorded at that address during their first U.S. tour in 1964; the Stones would record at Chess Studios on two more occasions. The building is now home to Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation. In the mid-60s, Chess re-located to a much larger building at 320 E. 21st. St, the label's final Chicago home.
Leonard bought a stake in a record company called Aristocrat Records in 1947; in 1950, Leonard brought his brother, Phil into the operation and they became sole owners of the company, re-naming it Chess Records.
In 1951, the Chess brothers began an association with Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service. One of the most important recordings that Phillips gave to Chess was "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats which topped Billboard magazine's R&B Records chart and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 because of its influence as a rock and roll single. One of the most important artists that came out of Memphis was Howlin' Wolf, who stayed with the label until his death in 1976.
In 1952, the brothers also started Checker Records as an alternative label for radio play (radio stations would only play a limited number of records for any one imprint). In December 1955, they launched a jazz and pop label called Marterry (a name created from the first names of Leonard and Phil's sons Marshall and Terry). This was quickly re-named Argo Records, but the name was changed again in 1965 to Cadet Records to end confusion with an older British classical music label.
In the mid-50s the Chess brothers received two doo-wop groups by Alan Freed, the Coronets and the Moonglows; the former group was not very popular but the latter achieved several crossover hits including "Sincerely", which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. Several of Chess's releases gave a writing credit to Alan Freed.
During the 1950s, Leonard and Phil Chess handled most of the production. They brought in legendary producer, Ralph Bass in 1960 to handle the gospel output and some of the blues singers. Bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon was also heavily involved in organizing blues sessions for the label, and is now credited retroactively as a producer on some re-releases. During the 1960s, the company's A&R manager and chief producer for soul/R&B recordings was Roquel "Billy" Davis, who had previously worked with Motown founder Berry Gordy on songs for Jackie Wilson, Etta James, Marv Johnson and on early Motown releases.
Chess Records was also known for its regular band of session musicians who played on most of the company's Chicago soul recordings, such as drummer Maurice White and bassist Louis Satterfield, both of whom would later shape the funk group Earth, Wind, & Fire; guitarists Pete Cosey, Gerald Sims and Phil Upchurch; pianist Leonard Caston, later a producer with Motown; and organist Sonny Thompson.
In 1969 Chess Records established a subsidiary label called Middle Earth Records in the U.K., which was distributed by Pye Records. The subsidiary specialized in Psychedelic rock and was a joint venture with the Middle Earth Club in London. The Middle Earth label released only 4 albums titles and about a dozen singles before it was closed in 1970.
The company was briefly run by Marshall Chess, son of Leonard, in his position as vice-president between January and October 1969, and then as president, following its acquisition by GRT, before he went on to found Rolling Stones Records. In 1969, the Chess brothers sold the label to General Recorded Tape (GRT) for $6.5 million. In October 1969, Leonard Chess died and by 1972, the only part of Chess Records still operating in Chicago was the recording studio, Ter-Mar Studios.
Although Chess had produced many R&B number ones and major pop hits over the years, it was in 1972 that the label finally reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with Chuck Berry's "My Ding-A-Ling", a live recording from a concert in Manchester, England. However, this became the company's 'swansong' release. GRT had moved the label to New York City, operating it as a division of Janus Records. Under GRT, Chess effectively vanished as an important force in the recording industry. In August 1975, GRT sold what remained of Chess Records to New Jersey-based All Platinum Records.
In the early 1980s, noticing that much of the Chess catalog was unavailable, Marshall Chess was able to convince Joe and Sylvia Robinson, who ran All Platinum, to re-issue the catalog themselves under his supervision (All Platinum had been licensing selected tracks out to other companies, which ultimately resulted in the disappearance of some original master tapes). The re-issued singles and LPs sold well, but by the mid-80s, All Platinum fell into financial difficulties and the Chess master recordings were acquired by MCA Records, which itself was later merged into Universal Music imprint, Geffen Records.
In the 2000s, Universal's limited-edition re-issue label, Hip-O Select began releasing a series of comprehensive box-sets devoted to such Chess artists as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.
Chess Records was the subject of two films produced in 2008, Cadillac Records and Who Do You Love?. In addition to the Chess brothers, both films feature portrayals of or based on Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, and Etta James. Cadillac Records was directed by Darnell Martin and features an ensemble cast including Adrien Brody, Mos Def, Beyoncé Knowles and Jeffrey Wright. Who Do You Love was directed by Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks and stars Alessandro Nivola playing Leonard Chess "as a complicated, driven man, hard on both his musicians and his family, yet with a real love for some of America's greatest music." The latter film's world premiere was at the Toronto International Film Festival, September 11, 2008.
List of Chess Records artists
- Gene Ammons
- Chuck Berry
- Eddie Bo
- Big Bill Broonzy
- Bobby Charles
- Bo Diddley
- Willie Dixon (as songwriter)
- The Flamingos
- Lowell Fulson
- Benny Goodman
- Buddy Guy
- Dale Hawkins
- Clarence "Frogman" Henry
- John Lee Hooker
- Howlin' Wolf
- Etta James
- Sam Lay
- Lafayette Leake
- J. B. Lenoir
- Willie Mabon
- Jimmy McCracklin
- Memphis Slim
- Little Milton
- The Moonglows
- Jimmy Nelson
- Jimmy Rogers
- Little Walter
- Washboard Sam
- Muddy Waters
- Jody Williams
- Sonny Boy Williamson II
- Fontella Bass
- Jan Bradley
- Gene Chandler
- Tony Clarke
- Mitty Collier
- Dave "Baby" Cortez
- The Dells
- Sugar Pie DeSanto
- Clarence 'Frogman' Henry
- Knight Brothers
- Denise LaSalle
- Laura Lee
- Ramsey Lewis Trio
- Moms Mabley
- Pigmeat Markham
- Bobby Moore & The Rhythm Aces
- James Phelps
- Sidney Pinchback
- The Radiants
- Jackie Ross
- Rotary Connection
- Jean Shy
- Shel Silverstein
- Billy Stewart
- Sonny Stitt
- Koko Taylor
- Tommy Tucker
- Slappy White
- Larry Williams
- Minnie Riperton
- ^ allmusic ((( Chess Blues > Overview )))
- ^ a b c d e Cohodas, Nadine (2000). Spinning Blues into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records. New York: St. Martins. http://www.bluestogold.com/index2.html
- ^ a b George R. White; Robert L. Campbell, Tom Kelly. "The Chess Label Part I (1950–1952)". Robert Campbell. Clemson, South Carolina: Clemson University. http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/chess1.html. Retrieved March 12, 2011.
- ^ Whitburn, Joel (2004). Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles (1942–2004). Record Research. p. 800.
- ^ a b "Grammy Hall of Fame". Grammy Awards. United States: The Recording Academy. http://www.grammy.org/recording-academy/awards/hall-of-fame. Retrieved March 12, 2011.
- ^ "Chess, Goodman In New Firm...". Billboard: 16. August 1, 1953. http://books.google.com/books?id=VwoEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA16&dq=%22Checker+Records%22+Artists&hl=en&ei=7p4eTYTmK8n2nAefoZSIDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%22Checker%20Records%22%20Artists&f=false. Retrieved December 31, 2010.
- ^ Howard Mandel, ed (2005). "The Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues". The Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues. Billboard Books. pp. 176, 182. ISBN 0-8230-8266-0.
- ^ Middle Earth Records Discography http://rateyourmusic.com/label/middle_earth/
- ^ Reece, Doug (December 7, 1996). "Vital Reissues – A Selected Guide to Fourthcoming Releases". Billboard: 52. http://books.google.com/books?id=uAkEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA52&dq=%22Chess+Records%22+1997&hl=en&ei=u5QeTbHkGNnhnQfx59CIDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=%22Chess%20Records%22%201997&f=false. Retrieved December 31, 2010.
- ^ http://tiff08.ca/filmsandschedules/films/whodoyoulove
- ^ "Accuse Chesses in Court Suit". Billboard: 11. December 8, 1962. http://books.google.com/books?id=OBgEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA11&dq=%22Checker+Records%22+Artists&hl=en&ei=faAeTebMAYKUnQffqfjqDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CDYQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=%22Checker%20Records%22%20Artists&f=false. Retrieved December 31, 2010.
- ^ http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/muddy-waters/cant-be-satisfied/730/
- ^ Don Snowden, I am the Blues, p.186.
- ^ Holland, Bill (October 8, 1997). "MCA Is Victor in Supreme Ct. Refusal to Hear Charly Case". Billboard: 7. http://books.google.com/books?id=nAkEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA7-IA4&dq=%22Chess+Records%22+1997&hl=en&ei=KY8eTe-pMcvLngfmz4iAAQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%22Chess%20Records%22%201997&f=false. Retrieved December 31, 2010.
- Former Chess Records Studio Historic Landmark
- The Chess Story
- Chess Records
- Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation
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