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Phil Chess, Chess Records Co-Founder, Passes at 95 in Arizona


Leonard, Marshall, and Phil Chess at their expansion of their Chicago recording studios in 1963 (photo courtesy of the Chess Family)

 By Raymond Rolak | For CNBNewsnet

Phil Chess, a Polish immigrant, who helped deliver Chicago blues to the world,

Phil and Leonard Chess outside of their iconic recording studios in Chicago at 2120 S. Michigan Ave. about 1964. Photo courtesy of the Chess family

died last week. He was 95.  He came to Chicago as a young boy in 1928, by way of Częstochowa, Poland.  His death was confirmed by his adult daughter, Pam Chess. 

  Chess and his brother Leonard built Chess Records, the record label on Chicago’s South Side that first recorded the pantheon of post-war blues and R&B greats.  They would also directly influence the British Invasion and the rock ‘n’ roll aftermath of the 1960’s.  Their artists included Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Etta James, Little Walter, Buddy Guy, among many others.  Included also was Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, and Fleetwood Mac.



The Chess Records "45" label.

Many in this vast stable of entertainers were first recorded at Chess Records.  Chess Records released Rocket 88 in connection with Sun Records in 1951.  It was actually recorded in Memphis by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, which was really Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm.  It was a cross-over song which drew on a template of jump blues, swing music, and cruising boogie.  Turner made the style even rawer, superimposing Brenston’s enthusiastic vocals, his own piano, and featuring tenor saxophone solos by Raymond Hill, a 17-year-old.  Willie Sims played drums for the recording.  It was also the first recording that included fuzz guitar, played by the band’s lead guitarist, Willie Kizart.  Some historians considered this the first rock recording. 



One of the 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," said Guy.  “The Chess brothers had a lot to do with that. ... I'll always be grateful for that.” 


Between 1950 and 1969, Muddy Waters and Chess Records created a template for the Chicago Blues.  Chess Records released an assortment of genres including, electric blues, gospel, soul, doo-wop, rockabilly, and jazz.   


“The body of work created by Chess Records is unmatched in blues history with literally hundreds of songs that are considered classics,” said Bruce Iglauer, president of Alligator Records, a current Chicago blues label. 


Phil and his older brother Leonard emigrated from Poland to the U.S. in 1928 to join their father in Chicago where he worked as a shoemaker and carpenter.  By then Yasef Czyż had changed the family name to Chess and his sons, Lejzor and Fiszel, became Leonard and Philip.  As teenagers, they later joined him in running a family junkyard that happened to be across from a black Baptist church.  Years later both brothers would say they were influenced by the music they heard coming through the building’s windows throughout the week. 


“On a Sunday, man, they’d get going with that groove and you couldn’t help but stand there and dance. Really, that’s, that’s how good it was,” Phil said in a 1995 interview.  “We gradually got a feel for this black blues.  And thank God it took off.”


After a stint in the army, Phil joined his brother in the club business in Bronzeville in 1946.  That was Chicago’s center of black nightlife.  Eventually, they took over Aristocrat Records, a pop label they renamed Chess Records.  In late 1946, the first recording under their direction was I Can’t Be Satisfied by Muddy Waters.  The 3,000 copies the company pressed sold out in a single day.


Through his earliest days running liquor stores and clubs in Bronzeville, Leonard Chess got to know many of the label’s earliest artists.  Throughout the company’s heyday, Leonard played a prominent role in securing the talent and producing the recording sessions.  Phil played a quieter role in the back office, which included handling Arc Music, the company’s important publishing arm and traveling to radio stations across the U.S. persuading disc jockeys to give their artists a chance.


“Phil was the rock of the company.  He held the office and took care of financial matters,” said Iglauer.  “Leonard was known to be emotional, mercurial, and sometimes difficult to deal with while Phil was always the solid one.  He was the go-to guy when business had to be dealt with.”


Together the brothers recorded artists targeting the black market with no intention of targeting white record buyers.  They realized that radio remained largely segregated with little opportunity for exposure.  However as the 1950s moved forward, artists such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters found their way outside the black market, particularly airplay in England.  “Their early releases of the Muddy and the Wolf and Sonny Boy records helped whites get into it although I don’t think they were too aware this was happening,” said Bob Koester, founder of Chicago-based Delmark Records, the oldest jazz, and blues independent record label in the US.


The Chess brothers were not musicians nor did they have formal musical training, but they prided themselves on having an ear for artists they knew were unique.  “Anything different that would draw your attention,” was their baseline for signing artists, Phil said.  After getting his demos rejected elsewhere, Chuck Berry showed up at the Chess doorstep with just a notebook of lyrics and a tape.  “It was different … It had a lot of country to it,” Phil added.  The label would test records by throwing open its doors on South Cottage Grove Avenue and watch the reaction of people waiting at the bus stop.  “That was our gauge.  It wasn’t always right, but 99% of the times it was right,” he said in 1995. 


As Chess grew it expanded beyond blues and served as an important label for jazz, recording saxophonists Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, pianists Ramsey Lewis and Ahmad Jamal.


In 1952, the brothers started Checker Records as an alternative label for radio play (radio stations would only play a limited number of records from any one imprint).  In December 1955, they launched a jazz and pop label, Marterry, a name created from the first names of Leonard and Phil’s sons, Marshall and Terry.  This brand in quick succession was changed to Argo Records and later to Cadet Records in 1965.  


In 1969, another subsidiary, Middle Earth Records, specialized in psychedelic rock and briefly run by Marshall Chess, Leonard’s son.  Leonard went on to found Rolling Stones Records.


The British Invasion helped usher in a new wave of interest in Chess artists during its second decade.  The Rolling Stones, who named their band after a Waters song, made the pilgrimage to Chicago record there, as did the Yardbirds.  Chess Records recording studios were located at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue from around 1956 to 1965.  The site became immortalized by the Rolling Stones in 2120 South Michigan Avenue, an instrumental recorded there during the group’s first U.S. tour in 1964.


Chess Records never lost its connection with its black audience.  In 1963 the brothers purchased a South Side radio station and changed its call letters to WVON (Voice of the Negro) and it became a towering outlet for black music during that decade. 


The Chess brothers got out of the business in 1969.  A few months later, after selling the company, Leonard died of a heart attack.  Phil Chess relocated to Arizona where he lived until his death.  Sheva Jones, his wife of 70 years who he met in high school, died in April of this year.


The Universal Music Group now controls the Chess catalog and the label’s iconic offices at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue are now operated by a foundation owned by the family of Willie Dixon.  Dixon, a longtime associate, was the label’s house songwriter, arranger, and bassist. 


Until his death, Phil insisted that Chuck Berry invented rock ‘n’ roll, not Elvis Presley or Bill Haley.  Berry turned 90 this past week.   


“The story of the blues is you tell your feelings,” Phil said in that 1995 interview.  “That’s what it is; you have to catch the blues when it comes from the heart.  I don’t care if you’re black, white, green or yellow.”


Some of the other artists who contributed to the legacy of Chess Records were the Flamingos, the Moonglows, Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, the Dells and the Ramsey Lewis Trio.


Marshall Chess said, “My father was the A-type aggressive personality; my uncle very laid back.  He had a big fish tank in his office, smoked cigars.  They divided up the artists almost by personality.  Uncle Phil was more sensitive, and produced the doo-wop records.”


In 1974, Marshall Chess produced a documentary expose of the Stones’ wild antics during a 1970’s concert tour, titled Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones.


 In 2008, based on the early history of Chess Records, two full-feature movies were produced. The first one released was called Cadillac Records. It starred Adrien Brody, Mos Def, Beyoncé Knowles, Jeffrey Wright and Cedric the Entertainer.  Another 2008 production, Who Do You Love and was directed by Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks and starred Alessandro Nivola as Leonard Chess.  The film received critical acclaim, highlighting the drive and tenacity of the Chess brothers, all while showcasing the love for the music they produced. 


Mark Guarino contributed




Have they got blues for you: Leonard, Phil and Marshall Chess…….

Courtesy of Chess Family Collection 

 Frank Zappa once said that the best years of rock were when records were produced by “cigar-chomping old guys who looked at the product that came and said, ‘I don’t know.  Who knows what it is? Record it, stick it out.  If it sells, all right.’”

Leonard and Phil Chess were prototypical cigar-chomping, old-fashioned record men who took a chance on music they didn’t understand. Jewish immigrants from Poland, they got into the record business more or less by chance: Leonard bought a liquor store in an African-American neighborhood on the south side of Chicago and did well enough that he opened a small nightclub called the Macomba Lounge.  It was a rough ghetto bar, patronized by prostitutes and drug dealers, but from the start, it was known for having good music.  In the late-1940s, that meant it had jazz groups playing bebop, pop tunes, and mellow blues ballads.  That was what the better-paying black patrons preferred to hear and when Leonard got involved with a small local label, Aristocrat Records, that was what he intended to record.


It was only after the first few records went nowhere that he took a chance on another kind of musician, a Mississippi singer who was too raw and country-sounding to have pleased the crowds at the Macomba.  In fact, when Leonard Chess first heard Muddy Waters sing I Can’t Be Satisfied, in a Delta growl backed with a whining electric slide guitar, he couldn’t imagine it pleasing anyone. “What’s he saying?” he asked. “Who’s going to buy that?”


Fortunately, his partner in Aristocrat, Evelyn Arons, suggested that some of the black southerners who had moved north in search of jobs might enjoy the sounds of home.  So Chess pressed 3,000 singles, they sold out in a day, and six decades later Waters’ recording is remembered as the first masterpiece of electric Chicago blues.


In a movie – and there have been several based on this story – Chess would have instantly seen the light and devoted himself to creating further blues masterpieces.  But in real life he was not a patron of the arts; he was a businessman trying to cut popular hits.  By 1950 Arons had been replaced by Leonard’s brother Phil and the label was called Chess, but most of its releases continued to be by jazz saxophonists.  


Meanwhile, Waters was also trying to reach a broader audience, adding a drummer and harmonica player to his live shows to create a tight, tough band.  He was frustrated when Chess refused to mess with a winning formula and insisted that he keep making stark guitar-and-bass records like Rollin Stone, a one-chord chant that was archaic even by the standards of rural Mississippi. Neither of them could have imagined that a dozen years later five lads in London would like that record enough to name a band after it.


That is the paradox of the Chess story.  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 cheaply 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.


They were also lucky, and unusually loyal to their artists.  That loyalty did not prevent them from playing some tricky games with publishing and royalty payments, but it meant that down-home bluesmen like Waters and Howlin’ Wolf continued to make records long after other indie labels had switched to a trendy teen style called rock’n’roll.


Leonard Chess and Waters had a particularly close relationship, and it served both of them well. When Waters finally persuaded Chess to record his full band, he incidentally brought the label its biggest blues hit-maker: Little Walter was barely out of his teens, and reshaped the course of blues harmonica by amplifying his instrument and playing it like a jazz saxophone.  It was a fresh, hip sound, and in 1952 he cut an instrumental called Juke that stayed at the top of the R&B charts for eight weeks.  Then, in 1955, Waters introduced Chess to an unknown songwriter from St Louis named Chuck Berry.  In retrospect, the list of artists who were associated with Chess in that first decade forms a pantheon of electric blues and blues-influenced rock’n’roll: Waters, Wolf, Walter, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Berry, Bo Diddley.  There were some startling one-offs as well: In 1951, a teenage Ike Turner recorded a romping boogie-woogie called Rocket 88 at Sun Studios in Memphis, soon to be the birthplace of rockabilly – but Sam Phillips had not yet started the record label that would spawn Elvis Presley, so the disc appeared on Chess.  When Presley hit, Chess got its own white rock’n’rollers, Dale Hawkins and Bobby Charles.  Many of the label’s biggest hits in this period came from doo-wop groups.


When people talk about the “Chess sound”, though, they are not thinking of rockabilly or doo-wop, or even of the brilliant soul records the label produced in the 1960s with Etta James, Fontella Bass and Little Milton.  They are thinking of the stripped-down blues discs that, despite changing fashions, always remained among the label’s mainstays.


It was because Mick Jagger had a couple of Chess LPs under his arm that he was approached by a passionate budding musician and schoolmate named Keith Richards.


Once again, that fame is in a large part due to decisions that at the time were simply efforts to wring a few more dollars out of a marginal style.  By 1957, down-home blues singles were no longer hitting, but the Chess brothers had made pretty good money with their first LP, the soundtrack album for a forgettable teen movie, Rock, Rock, Rock.  So, since reissues of old material were cheap to produce, they put out “best of” sets by Muddy Waters and Little Walter. The anthologies did not sell particularly well, but it was all clear profit, so over the next few years Chess recycled older tracks by Wolf, Williamson, and John Lee Hooker as well.  Their core audience was still buying singles, but some middle-class jazz and folk fans were beginning to get interested in blues and picked up the albums.  As a result, when the Newport Jazz Festival put on a special afternoon of blues in 1960, it included a folkloric segment, a jazz segment, and a fiery electric set by Waters and his band.


The LPs’ most significant influence was even less expected.  American listeners thought of Waters and Berry as coming from different generations and styles, and the fact that both were on the same record label was irrelevant.  In the UK, there was far less African-American music to choose from, so the Chess albums were coveted keys to a mysterious, faraway world.  A bright 18-year-old named Mick Jagger ordered them directly from Chicago and it was because he had a couple under his arm that he was approached by an erstwhile schoolmate named Keith Richards.


It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Chess Records owes its legendary status to that chance meeting on a Dartford train platform.  Its British acolytes provided it with a unique identity and today we associate Chess with the handful of brilliant artists whose work was adopted and recycled by the Rolling Stones and their peers.


According to Leonard’s son Marshall, who for five years managed the Stones’ record label, his father and uncle were unimpressed with the British groups.  But the one thing the Chess brothers never argued with was the success.


MARSHALL CHESS……son, nephew, employee and later boss recently said,


“South Michigan Ave was called Record Row – there wasn’t only Chess: Vee-Jay records were across the street, with five or six different distributors.  We had a narrow two-storey 1920’s Chicago building.  The offices were on the first floor and the studios were on the second floor.


“In the front, there was a waiting room – a wall with a window in the door because a lot of people who came to Chess records weren’t happy.  Like, ‘Why isn’t my record a hit?’  Billy Stewart, the R&B artist, pulled out a pistol and shot the door because they wouldn’t let him in quick enough.


“We were dealing with blues artists … 80% of them were drinking.  There was a lot of yelling, a lot of calling people ‘mother f..ker’, and fighting.  Blues artists, often you could give them $2,000 on Friday and they’d be broke by Monday.  Then they’d come in and say, ‘You f..ked me – where’s my money?’  You couldn’t be an angel and run Chess records in the ghetto in Chicago.


“My father was the A-type aggressive personality; my uncle very laid back.  He had a big fish tank in his office, smoked cigars.  They divided up the artists almost by personality. Uncle Phil was more sensitive and produced the doo-wop records.  My father was in there with Muddy Waters and Etta James.  They were tough Jews.  You had to be.  It was like the wild-west, to be white in the black ghetto in that era.  You were put down for even doing business with blacks.  When I used to take the money to the bank, it was in a paper bag, and on my way there I used to pass a liquor store and we used to talk about whether there was blood on the sidewalk outside that day.  People carried knives in those days, not guns.”


“My favorite artists were Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry – they used to send me to take him out to breakfast.  I was fascinated that he would always order the dessert first – always the strawberry shortcake.  Guys like Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf were natural stars, but when their records became hits, it seems like they sucked that in and their charisma grew and grew – it’s fed by their stardom.


I got a quick education.  Blues artists were primarily interested to know if I got any sex.  What does a guy ask a kid?  They’re not going to ask ‘How’s school?’  Muddy Waters used to ask me, ‘Get any yet?’


The Stones came to Chicago to record – the one I spent the most time with was Brian Jones.  The first time I drank hard liquor out of the bottle was with those guys.  I remember driving Brian Jones to his hotel – he had that long hair.  No one in Chicago had hair like that. Kids were screaming ‘Homo!’ at us.


The films about the label?  At first, I hated it.  My Uncle was bothered by it – my father didn’t die that way.  But Beyoncé was in Cadillac Records, and she’s such a big star, now everyone knows about Chess records.  It gets the history into the mainstream.  They remember it was important at the beginning of rock‘n’roll.”

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