Phil Chess, Producer And
By Raymond Rolak
Phil Chess, a Polish immigrant, who helped deliver Chicago blues to the world, died last week. He was 95. He came to Chicago as a young boy in 1928, by way of Częstochowa, Poland.
Chess and his brother Leonard built Chess Records, the record label on Chicago’s South Side that first recorded the blues and developed many R&B greats. They would also directly influence the British Invasion and the rock ‘n’ roll growth of the 1960’s. Their artists included Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Etta James, Little Walter and Buddy Guy. There were many others including, the Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, STYX and Fleetwood Mac.
Many in this vast stable of entertainers were first recorded at Chess Records. Chess Records released Rocket 88 in connection with Sun Records in 1951. It was actually recorded in Memphis by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, which was really Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm. It was a cross-over song which drew on a template of jump blues, swing music and cruising boogie. Turner made the style his own creation. He superimposed Brenston’s enthusiastic vocals with his own piano stylings and featured tenor saxophone solos by Raymond Hill, a 17 year old. Willie Sims played drums and it was the first recording that included fuzz guitar, played by the band’s lead-guitarist, Willie Kizart. Some pop-culture historians considered this the first rock recording.
Muddy Waters and Chess Records created a template for the Chicago Blues. Between 1950 and 1969 Chess Records released an assortment of genres including, electric blues, gospel, soul, doo-wop, rockabilly and jazz.
Phil and his older brother Leonard emigrated from Poland to the U.S. in 1928 to join their father in Chicago where he worked as a shoemaker and carpenter. By then Yasef Czyż had changed the family name to Chess and his sons, Lejzor and Fiszel, became Leonard and Philip. As teenagers they later joined him in running a family junkyard that happened to be across from a black Baptist church. Years later both brothers would say they were influenced by the music they heard coming through the building’s windows throughout the week. In photo: Leonard, Phil and Marshall in Chicago at the Chess Records studios during the 60’s.
“On a Sunday, man, they’d get going with that groove and you couldn’t help but stand there and dance. Really, that’s, that’s how good it was,” Phil said in a 1995 interview. “We gradually got a feel for this black blues. And thank God it took off.”
After a spending over three years in the army, Phil joined his brother in the tavern/club business in Bronzeville in 1946. That was Chicago’s center of black nightlife. Eventually they took over Aristocrat Records, a pop label they renamed Chess Records. In late 1946, the first recording under their direction was Gene Ammons’ version of My Foolish Heart. Next came, I Can’t Be Satisfied by Muddy Waters. The 3,000 copies the company pressed sold out in a single day.
Through his earliest days running liquor stores and clubs in Bronzeville, Leonard Chess got to know many of the label’s earliest artists. Throughout the company’s heyday, Leonard played a prominent role in securing the talent and producing the recording sessions. Phil played a quieter role in the back office, which included handling Arc Music, the company’s important publishing arm and traveling to radio stations across the U.S. persuading disc jockeys to give their artists a chance.
“Phil was the rock of the company. He held down the office and took care of financial matters,” said Bruce Iglauer, president of Chicago’s Alligator Records. “Leonard was known to be emotional, mercurial, and sometimes difficult to deal with while Phil was always the solid one. He was the go-to guy when business had to be dealt with.”
Together the brothers recorded artists targeting the black market with no intention of targeting white record buyers. They realized that radio remained largely segregated with little opportunity for exposure. However as the 1950s moved forward, artists such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters found their way outside the black market, particularly air-play in England. “Their early releases of the Muddy and the Wolf and Sonny Boy records helped whites get into it although I don’t think they were too aware this was happening,” said Bob Koester, founder of Chicago-based Delmark Records, the oldest jazz and blues independent record label in the U.S.
The Chess brothers were not musicians nor did they have formal musical training, but often admitted they prided themselves with having an ear for artists they knew were unique. “Anything different that would draw your attention,” was their baseline for signing artists, Phil said. After getting his demos rejected elsewhere, Chuck Berry showed up at the Chess doorstep with just a notebook of lyrics and a tape. “It was different … It had a lot of country to it,” he said. The label would test records by throwing open its doors on South Cottage Grove Avenue and watch the reaction of people waiting at the bus stop. “That was our gauge. It wasn’t always right, but 99% of the times it was right,” he said in 1995.
As Chess grew it expanded beyond blues and served as an important label for jazz, recording saxophonists Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, pianists Ramsey Lewis and Ahmad Jamal.
In 1952, the brothers started Checker Records as an alternative label for radio play (radio stations would only play a limited number of records from any one imprint). In December 1955, they launched a jazz and pop label, Marterry, a name created from the first names of Leonard and Phil’s sons, Marshall and Terry. This brand in quick succession was changed to Argo Records and later to Cadet Records in 1965.
In 1969, another subsidiary, Middle Earth Records, specialized in psychedelic rock and was briefly run by Marshall Chess, Leonard’s son. Marshall went on to found Rolling Stones Records.
The British Invasion helped usher in a new wave of interest on Chess artists during its second decade. The Rolling Stones, who named their band after a Waters song, made the special journey to Chicago to record there. Chess Records recording studios was located at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue from around 1956 to 1965. The site became immortalized by the Rolling Stones with 2120 South Michigan Avenue, an instrumental recorded there during the group’s first U.S. tour in 1964. Keith Richards called the location, “hallowed ground.” It is also where the Rolling Stones recorded “It’s All Over Now”. It was their first No. 1 hit.
Chess Records never lost its connection with its black audience. In 1963 the brothers purchased a South Side radio station and changed its call letters to WVON (Voice of the Negro) and it became a towering outlet for black music during that decade.
The Chess brothers got out of the business in 1969. A few months later, after selling the company, Leonard died of a heart attack. Phil Chess relocated to Arizona where he lived until his death. Sheva Jonesi, his wife of 70 years who he met in high school, died in April of this year. They owned and operated a radio station in Tucson.
The Universal Music Group now controls the Chess catalogue and the label’s iconic offices at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue are now operated by a foundation owned by the family of Willie Dixon. Dixon, now deceased, was a longtime associate. He was the label’s house producer, songwriter, arranger and bassist. He was the consummate musician and artist.
Until his death Phil insisted that Chuck Berry invented rock ‘n’ roll, not Elvis Presley or Bill Haley. Berry turned 90 this past week. “The story of the blues is you tell your feelings,” Phil said in that 1995 interview. “That’s what it is; you have to catch the blues when it comes from the heart. I don’t care if you’re black, white, green or yellow.”
Some of the other artists who contributed to the legacy of Chess Records were the Flamingos, the Moonglows, Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, the Dells and the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
Marshall Chess said, “My father was the A-type aggressive personality; my uncle very laidback. He had a big fish tank in his office, smoked cigars. They divided up the artists almost by personality. Uncle Phil was more sensitive, and produced the doo-wop records.”
In 1974, Marshall Chess produced a documentary expose of the Stones’ wild antics during a 1970’s concert tour, titled Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones.
In 2008, based on the early history of Chess Records, two full feature movies were produced. The first one released was called Cadillac Records. It starred Adrien Brody, Mos Def, Beyoncé Knowles, Jeffrey Wright and Cedric the Entertainer. The other 2008 production, Who Do You Love was directed by Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks and starred Alessandro Nivola as Leonard Chess. The film received critical acclaim highlighting the drive and tenacity of the Chess brothers, all while showcasing the love for the music they produced.
Raymond Rolak is an award-winning Polish-American filmmaker based in Hawaii.