CHICAGO — Chess Records co-founder Phil Chess, who with brother Leonard helped launch the careers of Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and others and amassed a catalog of rock and electric “Chicago” blues that profoundly influenced popular music in the 1950s and beyond, has died. He was 95.
Chess died overnight in Tucson, Arizona, according to his nephew, Craig Glicken, who spoke to the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday. Leonard, the older brother, died in 1969.
Started in Chicago by Leonard and Phil in 1950, Chess Records was home to many of the major blues artists of the following two decades and also took on such musical pioneers as Berry, Etta James and Ike Turner, whose “Rocket 88” is considered one of the earliest rock songs. Chess’ rise helped mark the migration North of such Southern-born blacks as Waters and Wolf and the transition of the blues from acoustic to electric, with hard-hitting arrangements that the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and other white stars openly drew upon.
One of today’s greatest bluesmen, Buddy Guy, credited the label with raising Chicago’s status to the capital of blues.
“Phil and Leonard Chess were cuttin’ the type of music nobody else was paying attention to ... and now you can take a walk down (Chicago’s) State Street today and see a portrait of Muddy that’s 10 stories tall,” Guy, who recorded at Chess, said Wednesday in an emailed statement. “The Chess brothers had a lot to do with that. ... I’ll always be grateful for that.”
Like other businessmen of blues and early rock, the brothers were Jewish kids with an affinity for black music. Phil Chess was born Fiszel Czyz in Motol, Poland, and changed his name to Phil Chess after the family immigrated to the U.S. After Phil served in the Army during World War II, the brothers started out with a liquor store, then ran the Macomba Lounge nightclub and music venue, before getting into the music recording business.
“Neither played an instrument. Neither had even a bent for music,” author Nadine Cohodas wrote of the Chess brothers in her 2000 book “Spinning Blues into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records.” “But they were entrepreneurs, and through the indigenous sounds of America — blues and its progeny, Jazz, rock and roll, and soul — they found their fortune.”
Chess Records’ first release was a Gene Ammons’ version of “My Foolish Heart.” Then came Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone” — a song so influential it became the name of the English rock band and the groundbreaking rock magazine.
For the next 19 years, they recorded a staggering lineup of America’s greatest blues, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll musicians out of a two-story building at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue, which still stands. They recorded everything from minimalist blues and harmony groups to Berry and fellow rocker Bo Diddley. Others who worked at Chess included Willie Dixon, Little Walter and a young session drummer named Maurice White, who later founded Earth, Wind & Fire. Leonard and Phil Chess also founded a handful of sister labels, including Checkers Records, Cadet Records and Marterry.
The impact of Chess blues was especially strong in the United Kingdom, where American recordings were cherished and hard to find in the 1950s and early ‘60s. Chess albums helped inspire the London blues scene of the 1960s, the proving ground for such future rock superstars as the Stones, Clapton, Rod Stewart and Mick Fleetwood. Chess even played in a role in one of rock’s most fateful meetings, when Mick Jagger ran into Keith Richards at the Dartford train station in 1961. As Richards liked to recall, he noticed that Jagger was carrying albums by Berry and Waters and sensed he had found a musical soul mate.
When the Stones caught on and first visited the U.S. in 1964, they made sure to stop by what Richards considered “hallowed ground.” The band recorded one of its first major hits, “It’s All Over Now,” at Chess Records and named an instrumental “”2120 South Michigan Avenue” in the label’s honor.
Leonard died of a heart attack in 1969. That same year, Chess Records was sold and Phil moved to Arizona, where he worked in radio. In 2008, Shiloh Fernandez played Phil in the movie “Cadillac Records,” which also featured Adrien Brody as Leonard and Beyoncé as Etta James.
Leonard Chess was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and both brothers are in the Blues Hall of Fame.