Chicago’s Chess Records produced trailblazing artists and albums

Chicago’s Chess Records is not just a record label, it’s an iconic institution that shaped the course of American music. Chess Records, which rose to national prominence at the height of the blues revolution in the 1950s, propelled music forward and immortalized a generation. 

More than anywhere else in the world, Chess Records in Chicago was famous for popularizing the blues and helping introduce it to the mass market – both domestically and overseas. This introduction, according to many in the music industry, literally changed the course of music history. 

Chess Records was established by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess. The Chess Brothers were immigrants from Poland that journeyed to Chicago in 1928 in search of a better life. They owned several bars on the south side of Chicago, one of which had live entertainment. Believing these performers were not being properly recorded, the Chess brothers teamed up with Charles and Evenly Aron to form Aristocrat Records in 1947. By June 1950, the company was reorganized into Chess Records. 

Chess Records was located on South Michigan Avenue, about 20 blocks south of the Loop. The sound the Chess brothers were after was electrified-Southern, or Mississippi Delta blues. It was a distinctive sound, featuring a hard-driving beat that, depending on the artist, might include gospel, jazz, or soul. The brothers searched throughout the south to find exactly the right types of artists to record. By the late 1950s, Chess Records was becoming known as the international headquarters for the blues. 

In 1955, a young singer and guitar player from St. Louis named Chuck Berry met Muddy Waters, who encouraged him to see the Chess brothers. With Berry, Chess Records had a singer whose sound could not be duplicated with cover records by white recording artists. Berry wrote and recorded a number of hits for Chess, including ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and ‘Rock and Roll Music.’ Berry is one of the giants of the music industry and one of the initial 10 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

Chess Records helped to put many black musicians on the map and on the music charts. It was one of the most influential record labels in regard to the rise of Rhythm and Blues. Chess Records also was extremely influential on Rock and Roll. The Chess brothers had the keen ability to identify talent and sign performers before other labels could. Since it was not easy to get music by black musicians played on the radio in the 1950s, the Chess brothers had to be ingenious in their marketing techniques. The bulk of their trade was done through jukeboxes in taverns and shops. The Chess brothers travelled thousands of miles by car for days and days dropping off records to distributors and disc jockeys, hoping they could interest them in playing the music. 

The Chess Brothers operated Chess Records for 19 years until its sale in 1969. During that time they oversaw the production and release of countless seminal blues and rock ‘n roll recordings, including Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, and Memphis Slim.  By the late 1960s, sales of blues music were declining. Leonard’s untimely death and mounting legal issues led to Chess Records being sold to General Recorded Tape. By 1975, Chess Records officially closed its doors. 


Photo credit: "Chess Records" by Reading Tom is licensed under CC BY 2.0.