The Impact of Chess Records

By: Whitney Holmes

The Beginning...

At the beginning of the 20thcentury, many African Americans migrated up north to places such as New York and Chicago to seek jobs and a better life for the families. With this migration, many new genres of music were started by black musicians. Consequently, many record labels refused to sign black artists because of racial tensions in the United States during this time. During the 50s, there was a new genre of music that emerged: Rhythm and Blues.  In the early 1950s, many record labels settled on South Michigan Ave in Chicago, Illinois, which eventually became known as “Record Road” and focused on recruiting artists in this new genre of music. Chess Records was one of the many record labels that began in Chicago. Leonard and Phil Chess were two Polish immigrant brothers that founded Chess Records. In the 40s, the two brothers owned a blues nightclub on the southside of Chicago where several blues artists would perform at night. Leonard invested in Aristocrat Records and eventually asked his brother to invest with him. The Chess brothers shortly became the sole owners of Aristocrat Records and changed the name to Chess Records. Chess Records would then go on to be one of the most notable record labels during the rising popularity of Rhythm and Blues. 

The Chess Brothers

The Chess Brothers in 1968. Left: Phil Chess Right: Leonard Chess.

Notable Artists

Chess Records produced several legendary artists during the 1950s and 1960s. One of the most famous artists that came from Chess Records was Muddy Waters. The “father of Chicago Blues” was a singer-songwriter known for his hits “Sugar Sweet”, “Trouble No More”, “Rollin Stone” and other hits that continuously topped the Billboard charts. Muddy Waters often times collaborated with legendary bassist Willie Dixon (another Chess Records artist). Other notable artists at Chess Records included Chester Burnett aka Howlin’ Wolf, Eddie Boyd, Willie Mabon, Memphis Slim, and Etta James. Etta James recorded her most popular hit “At Last”. Her involvement with Cadillac and Chess Records is portrayed in the film Cadillac Records. Although Chess Records put many black musicians on the map and on the music charts, like most of the other white-owned record labels, they did not give the musicians the money they deserved. There was conflict with Chess Records and the artists about the amount of financial credit should be given to the artists.

Impact on the Music Industry

Chess Records was one of the most influential record labels in regard to the popularity rise of R&B. It is also credited to be extremely influential on Rock and Roll. Much of the legacy left by Chess Records is heavily influenced by the artists it produced. Many of the artists at Chess Records were fearless, innovative, and of course, talented. The Chess brothers had a talent in identifying talented artists and signing them before other labels do. Unfortunately, like many other record labels on Record Road, Chess Records began to have financial difficulty and eventually sold the label in 1969. Through its innovative artists and multiple top of the chart hits.