How the blues brothers behind Chess Records made all the right moves
Leonard and Phil Chess's legendary Chicago label helped invent rock'n'roll with Ike Turner, brought us the minimalist blues of Muddy Waters, and provided a direct influence on the young Rolling Stones
Have they got blues for you: Leonard, Phil and Marshall Chess Photograph: Chess Family Archive
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 neighbourhood 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, patronised 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's 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 By 1950 Arons had been replaced by Leonard's brother Phil and the label was called Chess, but most of its releases continued to be by jazz saxophonists.
The brothers were small-time "indie" record men making a quick buck from the poorest, least respected people in America
Little Walter. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
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 an erstwhile schoolmate named Keith Richards
Fontella Bass. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
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 success.
MARSHALL CHESS Son, employee and boss
Photograph: Neilson Barnard/Getty
"South Michigan Ave was called Record Row – there wasn't only Chess: Vee-Jay records was across the street, with five or six different distributors. We had a narrow two-storey 1920s 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 'motherfucker', 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 fucked 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 laidback. He had a big fishtank in his office, smoked cigars. They divided up the artists almost by personality. 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/bar, and we used to talk about whether there was blood on the sidewalk outside that day. People carried knives then, not guns.
"My favourite 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 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 in to the mainstream. They remember it was important at the beginning of rock'n'roll."Read more at www.guardian.co.uk