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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. Public reception of the label had been massive as Dixon and Waters soared through the charts. The new genre’s twelve-bar style and rhythmic dance beat set Chicago as the premier music destination. Chess records continued acquiring artists through their network of connections across the country. Their latest additions would include Little Walter who revolutionized harmonica playing to mainstream success. 1954’s “You’re So Fine” stood out from the era’s jukebox pop and lamented Walter as a leader in blues music.

Phil continued a successful streak of garnering talent, but Leonard would, additionally, look outside Chicago. With the help of friend and fellow label owner, Sam Phillips, Chess records grew their pool of talent wider. The biggest contribution would be the signing of Mississippi native Chester Arthur Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf. Hit singles “Who Will Be Next” and “Smokestack Lightnin’” skyrocketed the label further into the stratosphere. Citizens were transfixed with blues on a national scale with records outselling every other genre. Artists who owed their success to the label would remain signed until the later stages of their career. But for all the success they brought into the decade, another genre made a stamp on the competition. Rock ‘n’ roll became appealing for its upbeat drive and hard-hitting sound which swept the nation. Many of its artists, including forerunner Elvis Presley, attributed blues music as the main influence on their style. However, it wouldn’t be long before the wave of rock dominated the charts and outdrove record sales.

By the late 1960s, the declining sales of blues, coupled with Leonard’s death, forced the label to sell to General Recorded Tape. But not before the label found themselves in a lawsuit. For all their contributions, some of their biggest artists discovered unpaid royalties and blamed the two for negligence. The turbulence was captured by press attention and before long, the blues label would officially close in 1975. But later incarnations would come from reissues and compilation soundtracks of unreleased material. The 1980s blues scene sparked record sales of these reissues with former Chess artists touring once again. The label’s complex relationship between the Chess brothers and their artists took to the big screen. 2008’s Cadillac Records retells the dramatized story of the label as personal lives of artists became entangled with business practices.

To this day, many of the new era’s top-selling artists honor their influences on blues music. With the label’s noted discoveries of John Lee Hooker, Etta James and Chuck Berry, Chess Records built an entire generation. Its complicated history and hard drive personify one of America’s greatest forms of music. For their love of the genre, Leonard and Phil Chess are credited for being the gateway to the careers of legends who influenced future generations. All stemming from the brothers’ American dream on making it big in the country.

Written by Trenton Luber


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