Phil Chess, Whose Record Label Elevated Unknown Blues Musicians, Dies at 95
By DOUGLAS MARTINOCT. 19, 2016
From left, Phil Chess, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Bo Diddley. Chess Records, the independent label Mr. Chess co-founded, was known for recruiting black singers who had migrated from the South. Michael Ochs Archives
Phil Chess, who with his brother founded Chess Records, a storied Chicago label that captured great blues musicians like Muddy Waters in their prime and helped power the musical fusillade of rock ’n’ roll with vibrant recordings by the likes of Chuck Berry, died on Tuesday at his home in Tucson, Ariz. He was 95.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Pam Chess.
Chess Records was one of the most prominent of the independent labels — Atlantic in New York and Sun in Memphis were among the others — that became successful in the 1950s by finding little-known performers, recording them and persuading radio stations (not infrequently with the help of cash payments) to play their records.
Their goal was profit, but their lasting influence was suggested by the first ballot of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which consisted almost entirely of artists who had recorded for independent labels.
Chess Records was best known for recruiting black musicians who had taken their heartbreak, hopes and not a few harmonicas from the South to Chicago and who, with electric guitars and a big backbeat, gave birth to what came to be known as Chicago blues. In addition to Muddy Waters, its roster included, at various times, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and many other Chicago blues stars.
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“Chess not only became the true repository of American blues music, but it also presented black music for the edification of white audiences throughout the world,” the Hall of Fame said in 1987 when it inducted Phil’s brother and partner, Leonard Chess.
Curiously, Phil Chess was neither inducted nor mentioned in the citation. Nor was he depicted in a 2008 movie about the company, “Cadillac Records.” (In another movie about the label, “Who Do You Love,” released in 2010, Phil, played by Jon Abrahams, and Leonard, played by Alessandro Nivola, were portrayed as equals.)
But Marshall Chess, Leonard’s son, who worked with both men at Chess and went on to run the Rolling Stones’ record company, said both brothers did a lot of everything, including supervising recording sessions and hawking records to disc jockeys.
“It was a fully symbiotic, synergistic relationship,” he said in a 2008 interview with The Chicago Tribune.
Leonard’s greater visibility reflected the more public role he played. In addition, he worked primarily with the blues performers, for which the label was best known. Phil mostly shepherded the company’s jazz and doo-wop recordings.
Both brothers, however, were honored in 2013 by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences with a Trustees Award for lifetime achievement.
Chucky Berry’s “Blue Feeling,” released by Chess Records.
The legacy of the tough-talking, cigar-chomping brothers can be seen not just in the records they made but also in the many songs recorded first by Chess artists and later by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others.
The influence of Chess Records was evident in how Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who had been playmates as children, got together musically as teenagers in the spring of 1961. On a train from Dartford, the London suburb where they both grew up, Mr. Richards noticed that Mr. Jagger was carrying two Chess albums then unavailable in England, one by Muddy Waters and the other by Chuck Berry.
The name of the group they soon formed, the Rolling Stones, came from a Waters song. When the Stones first visited the United States in 1964, they made a pilgrimage to Chess’s studio in Chicago and recorded several tracks there, including an instrumental titled “2120 South Michigan Avenue” — the company’s address.
The Chess saga began in Motal, a small town that was then in Poland and is now in Belarus. To try to lift his family from poverty, the brothers’ father, Yasef Czyz, emigrated to Chicago in the early 1920s. By 1928 he had saved enough to send for his wife, Cyrla; his daughter, Malka; and his sons, Lejzor and Fiszel, the youngest child, born on March 27, 1921. Czyz became Chess, and all the first names were Americanized, with Lejzor becoming Leonard and Fiszel becoming Philip.
Motal was inarguably a place to escape, with no running water or electricity and only one windup phonograph. In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2008, Phil Chess said life in the shtetl was “blues all the time.”
Chicago wasn’t easy, either. After working as a carpenter, Yasef, now Joe, acquired a junkyard and planned to have his sons work there. But Phil left for Western Kentucky University on a football scholarship, and Leonard acquired a liquor store in a black neighborhood, near their Jewish one. Having returned from Kentucky after three semesters, Phil helped Leonard in the store until he was drafted in 1943.
While he was in basic training, Phil married Sheva Jonesi. She died this year. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by two sons, Kevin and Terry; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Leonard Chess died in 1969.
Leonard bought a restaurant on the South Side of Chicago while Phil was in the Army and converted it into a nightclub, the Macomba Lounge. He wanted to record some of the acts, mainly jazz groups, that played there, and in 1947 he bought a share of Aristocrat Records, which a local married couple, Evelyn and Charles Aron, had recently started.
Aristocrat had begun recording some of the black blues singers who had moved to Chicago from the South. The company pressed 3,000 copies of Waters’s single “I Can’t Be Satisfied” — even though Leonard said he did not understand Waters’s music — and they sold out in a day. The recording is now widely regarded as an early masterpiece of Chicago blues.
After his discharge in 1946, Phil joined Leonard at the Macomba; he was soon managing it by himself as Leonard delved deeper into the record business. After the club burned down in 1950, Phil, too, devoted himself to recording full time. They acquired all of Aristocrat that year and renamed the company Chess.
The brothers operated on what Phil called “an unspoken understanding”: “Whatever we did, we did as partners.”
Mr. Chess Michael Ochs Archives
The first Chess release was the jazz saxophonist Gene Ammons’s recording of “My Foolish Heart.” Their second was Waters’s “Walkin’ Blues,” with “Rollin’ Stone” on the B-side.
During Chess’s first decade, a pantheon of musicians helped lay the foundation for rock ’n’ roll, among them Bo Diddley and, most notably, Chuck Berry, who was an unknown singer, songwriter and guitarist from St. Louis when Waters brought him to the brothers’ attention. Mr. Berry quickly made his mark with groundbreaking singles like “Maybellene” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” (Phil Chess said he considered Mr. Berry, not Elvis Presley, the real king of rock ’n’ roll.)
An association with Sam Phillips, who would go on to found the Sun label in Memphis, yielded a number of Chess releases, most notably “Rocket 88,” a 1951 recording by Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm (under the name Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats). Some music historians consider it the first rock ’n’ roll record.
The rosters of Chess and its subsidiary labels, Checker and Argo (later known as Cadet), also included doo-wop groups, jazz musicians like Ramsey Lewis and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, gospel singers like a young Aretha Franklin and comedians like Moms Mabley. When Elvis Presley hit, Chess signed its own white rockers, Dale Hawkins and Bobby Charles. Etta James was also part of Chess’s stable.
In 1963, the Chess brothers purchased a Chicago radio station, WHFC, and renamed it WVON (the call letters stood for “voice of the Negro”). With a lineup of lively air personalities playing the rhythm-and-blues hits of the day, it quickly became one of the top-rated stations in the market. It was sold in 1969 and is now owned by the Midway Broadcasting Company and has a talk format.
Chess Records ceased to be a family affair that same year, when it was bought by General Recorded Tape for $6.5 million. The Chess catalog is now owned by the Universal Music Group.
Over the years, the Chess brothers were accused more than once of taking financial advantage of their artists, and there were lawsuits, usually settled confidentially. Some Chess artists said their compensation was more often like an allowance than like a salary.
But there were many instances of apparently genuine friendship: Chuck Berry sometimes stayed overnight at Phil’s house, sharing a room with his son, Terry, and musicians attended the Chess sons’ bar mitzvahs.
The Chess brothers may have been motivated more by financial considerations than by artistic ones. But virtually no one disputes that they helped document some of America’s most important vernacular music.
“That is the paradox of the Chess story,” the British newspaper The Guardian wrote in 2010. “The brothers were not musical visionaries; they were small-time ‘indie’ record men making a quick buck from the poorest, least respected people in America. But their recorded bread-and-butter discs of local street musicians and bar bands still sound as fresh today as they did 60 years ago. By failing to be timely, they succeeded in being timeless.”
The brothers never claimed to be musical geniuses. “If you put the scale on the wall and ask me which one was do re mi, I couldn’t tell you,” Phil was quoted as saying by Nadine Cohodas in “Spinning Blues Into Gold” (2000), a history of Chess Records. “Neither could Leonard.” Motioning to his ear, Ms. Cohodas wrote, he added: “This could tell you. That’s what told us.”
When The Chicago Sun-Times asked Phil Chess in 1997 why he had been so successful, he shrugged. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said.