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Chess Records: The Complex Originators of Blues

“America at this moment, stands at the summit of the world.” I don’t think Winston Churchill knew that this summit was amplified by electric guitars, harmonicas and a drumbeat. Blues music in the 1950s didn’t just define a new and emerging genre but an entire culture. The sound was raw and had urban vantages that made its raucous tone jump off the music sheets. Previously unknown artists appeared on the scene and would later be celebrated as legends in the genre. At the center of blues mainstream success was a record label that propelled music into the future. Chess records flourished in the moody atmosphere that placed the genre at the top of American music. Their collection of multi-talented artists landed them as the first label to start out the new decade that immortalized a generation. What many are surprised to find, is that the most American genre in music was overseen by two immigrants.

Leonard and Phil Chess were just two young brothers from Poland who came to Chicago for a better life. The two would be introduced to a certain level of entrepreneurship through their father’s liquor business during Prohibition. Their family’s profit and business experience supported the Chess brothers’ pursuit in the nightclub scene. Jazz music in an urban environment influenced the brother’s tastes and proliferation of African American culture. Leonard became acquainted with Aristocrat Records during this time and eventually bought the company. Leonard and Phil would shift the labels focus on jazz and pop to something that spoke to the country’s roots. The idea for a new direction swung into motion by way of meeting local sessions player Muddy Waters. The relatively unknown artist would cut “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, his debut single with the label. Its release in 1948 signified a turning point for music with the Chess brother’s leading the way.

Muddy Waters trademark delta slide influenced the acquisition of similar artists that had fit the mold. Among these artists was fan favorite Robert Nighthawk who held studio sessions at the label. Phil Chess was famous for scouting talent to increase the labels roster. His penchant for recognizing talent would point to Nighthawks bassist Willie Dixon. An artist whose ability to write, sing and produce music landed him an immediate contract with the label. The brothers were satisfied with the updated roster and finally rebrand themselves as Chess Records in 1950.

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