Chess recorded, located in Chicago and founded in 1950, captured and shaped a new style of American music that was heavily shaped by the South. Chess would go on to influence rock and roll pioneers such as Chuck Berry to the Rolling Stones, becoming synonymous with the American rhythm and blues.
Chess Records was founded by two brothers named Leonard and Philip Chess. These brothers were Polish immigrants that migrated to the south of Chicago. The Chess brothers were raised in a black community in Chicago, being exposed to the gospel harmonies and Jewish prayer cantillations both having echoes of the blues scale. The Brothers stayed true to their roots and founded Chess Records in 1957, becoming a haven for many Black artists with focuses on Rock and Roll as well as Rhythm and Blues.
In the 40s Phil and Leonard Chess were owners of a nightclub called the Macomba Lounge, located on the Southside of Chicago. Many blues artists would perform in the Macomba lounge, influencing the brothers’ decision to invest in a record company owned by Charles and Evelyn Aron. In 1947 the brothers became sole owners of Aristocrat Records, then they change the name of the company to Chess Records in 1957.
Chess Records was the home of many influential artists such as Muddy Waters, Chester Burnett AKA Howlin’ Wolf, and Chuck Berry. Muddy Waters was a phenomenal blues artist that was best known for his Post World War1 II electric guitar, and he is also considered the “Father of Chicago Blues”. Waters’ well-known repertoire consists of “Sugar Sweet”, “Trouble No More”, and “Rollin Stone”, and the list continues. Chester Burnett was a blues artist known for his unique, dynamic voice and incomparable harmonica skills. His hits consist of “Smokestack Lightnin'”, “Spoonful”, “The Little Red Rooster”, etc. Chuck Berry played a critical role in creating rock and roll from his distinctive guitar sounds to incorporating musical devices characteristic of country-western music. His Billboard hits consist of “Maybellene”, “Thirty Days”, “Johnny B. Goode”, etc.
Etta James was signed by Chess Records in 1960 becoming their first major female star. James was known for her powerful, versatile voice as she was able to sing the rawest of blues songs to the most sincere and subtle love songs. Her greatest hits are “At Last”, ” A Sunday Kind of Love”, “All I Could Do Was Cry”, etc. Ms. James helped build music bridging the gaps between diverse genres such as jazz, R&B, soul, rock and roll, gospel, and blues. The many awards from organizations like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, and the Rockability Hall of Fame are a true testimony to her trailblazing and powerful presence in the music industry.
Impact of Chess Records
The Chess Brothers were very influential in the R&B and blues world providing a home for many Black artists to express their emotion, innovation, and artistry. Despite their work and progress made in music, they faced many financial issues and eventually closed their doors. However, Chess Records’ lasting impact will never be forgotten.