Brothers Leonard and Phil Chess immigrated to America in 1928 from Poland. In 1947 they bought out Aristocrat Records in Chicago, which they renamed Chess. Their first record was a soul version of My Foolish Heart by tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons.
Muddy Waters went on to become one of the most important blues artists on Chess, while Leonard Chess discovered Chuck Berry and developed the label into a major factor in the recording of rhythm and blues, along with Atlantic, Imperial and others.
The Chess/Checker/Cadet aggregation of labels also helped establish Chicago as a music centre.
Other artists on the Chess label included Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Archer Crudup, Otis Spann, Jimmie Rodgers, Bo Diddley and Willie Mabon. The Moonglows, The Flamingos and The Cornets were among other artists in the Chess/Checker/Cadet family.
For his first single ever on Chess Records, Muddy Waters reworked Mississippi bluesman Robert Petway’s Catfish Blues into a spare, spooky track he named Rollin’ Stone. The Rolling Stones took their name from the title. Bob Dylan tipped his hat with Like A Rolling Stone.
Chess was an independent label in the most refreshing sense of the word. The founding brothers often distributed their earliest records by car to their Chicago South Side accounts. Leonard Chess also went on the road through the south to hunt talent and do “remote” recordings.
He discovered Howlin’ Wolf on one trip and recorded Archer Crudup on another.
Their company continued to grow in the 50s, expanding to contract such jazz artists as Ramsey Lewis, Ahmad Jamal, Wes Montgomery, and Ray Bryant.
The Chess brothers opened and operated the Macomba Club which booked such artists as Lionel Hampton, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. They also owned the L&P Broadcasting Company, with radio stations in Chicago and Milwaukee.
The Chess labels were acquired early in 1969 by the GRT organisation.
Leonard Chess died of a heart attack on 16 October 1969. He was just 52. Philip Chess passed away on 18 October 2016, at the age of 95.