When Phil Chess died recently, the news received little notice here in his former hometown of Chicago, another sign of the cultural amnesia of today’s society. The record label Phil formed with his brother Leonard, Chess Records, was an absolutely crucial influence on 20th Century music, and had an important role in racial progress in America.
Phil and Leonard Chess, young Polish/Jewish immigrants, settled on the South Side and in the 1940’s befriended many black musicians, primarily blues players who came to Chicago during the Great Migration. Among these musicians were a number of future blues immortals including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Bo Diddley.
Through their music, Chess Records released some of the greatest blues, soul, and rock and roll records ever recorded. At the same time, the Chess Recording Studio at 2120 S. Michigan became a landmark. In his autobiography, Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards called it “hallowed ground… the perfect sound studio.”
The effect this music had on the development of rock and roll was incalculable. Bluesmen adopted the electric guitar, and. their music slowly caught on in America. Meanwhile in England, a British teenager ordered blues records by mail from Chicago, and listened to them with a classmate. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards soon founded the Rolling Stones (named after a Muddy Waters song) to sing Chicago blues. In 1964, the popular new group visited 2120 S. Michigan, recorded there, and even wrote a song about the studio. The emerging rock world took note and soon Chicago blues became embedded in the DNA of rock and roll.
The music had an even more important effect. You Tube performances of Chuck Berry on American Bandstand in 1958 and Muddy Waters at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival show enthusiastic crowds of young white people – something unlikely twenty years earlier. In a few years, young people like those would be marching on Washington and fighting for civil rights. The music that came out of 2120 S. Michigan helped shape the attitudes of a new generation who viewed race differently from their parents.
Chess Records rarely gets credit for being one of the first labels to promote female artists. The 1950’s and early 1960’s saw few female recording celebrities because most record labels did not feature women unless they were bona fide stars – Ella Fitzgerald, Connie Francis, Doris Day. In contrast, Chess promoted the legendary Etta James, as versatile a singer, male or female, as there was in music; she could sing rock, blues, country or Gershwin equally well. The label also had such underappreciated talents as Fontella Bass, Barbara Lewis, Marlena Shaw, and Koko Taylor, whose recording of “Wang Dang Doodle” became a certified blues classic.
Finally, there was the incomparable Chuck Berry, who recorded for Chess from 1955-1966. No individual artist ever had a greater influence on rock and roll. If Elvis was The King of Rock, Chuck Berry was certainly the Grandather. Everyone from Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix to Bruce Springsteen (and even Elvis) covered his songs, and there are countless examples of artists who borrowed from, riffed off of, or simply stole from Chuck Berry.
Listen carefully and you can hear John Lennon pay homage to Chuck when the Beatles sing the Berry classic “Rock and Roll Music” (the Beatles drew extensively from the Chuck Berry songbook). In one stanza, Lennon changes the line from “just give me some of that rock and roll music, it’s got a backbeat you can’t lose it” to “it’s got a blackbeat, you can’t lose it”.
Bob Dylan won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature for his song lyrics, but Chuck Berry may have been just as clever a lyricist (and a far more accomplished musician). Long before Dylan wrote “the times, they are a changing”, Berry expressed a similar musical sentiment of the new order with “Roll over Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news”. Dylan’s lyric “the answer is blowin’ the wind” is iconic but so is Berry’s lyric, “Don’t want your botheration, get away, leave me, too much monkey business for me!”
The Chess Brothers have been accused of racism and exploiting their artists with unfair recording contracts. This is a misreading of history. The standard at the time were recording contracts typically stacked against artists. Frank Sinatra had to forfeit his advance and pay his own studio costs in his first Capitol Records contract. The early contracts of Elvis and the Beatles were one-sided in favor of the labels, with the artists receiving pennies on the dollar. The Chess musicians may not have realized a great deal of money from their recordings, but it was more a business issue than racism. in fact, many Chess artists had a far closer personal relationship with the Chess brothers than white artists had at other labels.
The black musicians who played for Chess Records would likely have become stars no matter where they recorded. But Phil Chess and his brother ensured the artists received due recognition while they were alive. They lived to see themselves become household names. For this, and for his fundamental role in changing American culture and history. Phil Chess deserves our acknowledgement. To quote Arthur Miller, “Attention must be paid”.
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