Chess RecordsChess Records was an American record label based in Chicago, Illinois. It specialized in blues, R&B, soul, gospel music, early rock and roll, and occasional jazz releases.
Run by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, the company produced and released many important singles and albums, which are now regarded as central to the rock music canon. Musician and critic Cub Koda described Chess Records as "America's greatest blues label."
The Chess Records catalogue is now owned by Universal Music Group and managed by Geffen Records.
Chess Records was based at several different locations on the south side of Chicago, Illinois, initially at two different locations on South Cottage Grove Ave. The most famous location was 2120 S. Michigan Avenue from around 1956 to 1965, immortalized by British rock group The Rolling Stones in “2120 South Michigan Avenue”, an instrumental recorded at that address during their first U.S. tour in 1964; the Stones would record at Chess Studios on two more occasions. The building is now home to Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation. In the mid-60s Chess re-located to a much larger building at 320 East 21st Street, the label's final Chicago home.
Leonard bought a stake in a record company called Aristocrat Records in 1947; in 1950, Leonard brought his brother, Phil into the operation and they became sole owners of the company, renaming it Chess Records.
The first release on Chess was the 78 RPM single "My Foolish Heart" b/w "Bless You" by Gene Ammons, which was released as Chess 1425 in June 1950, and became the label's biggest hit of the year.
In 1951, the Chess brothers began an association with Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service One of the most important recordings that Phillips gave to Chess was “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats which topped Billboard magazine's R&B Records chart and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 because of its influence as a rock and roll single.
One of the most important artists that came out of Memphis was Howlin' Wolf, who stayed with the label until his death in 1976. Many songs created by Chess artists were later reproduced by many famous Rock n' Roll bands and artists such as "The Beatles", "The Rolling Stones", "The Beach Boys" and "Eric Clapton." Some of the core riffs created by Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters and others were the basis of a wide amount of Rock n' Roll.
In 1952, the brothers also started Checker Records as an alternative label for radio play (radio stations would only play a limited number of records for any one imprint). In December 1955, they launched a jazz and pop label called Marterry (a name created from the first names of Leonard and Phil's sons Marshall and Terry). This was quickly renamed Argo Records, but the name was changed again in 1965 to Cadet Records to end confusion with an older British classical music label.
In 1953, Leonard Chess and Gene Goodman set up Arc Music BMI, a publishing company that would publish songs by many rhythm and blues artists.
In the mid 1950s the Chess brothers received two doo-wop groups by Alan Freed, the Coronets and the Moonglows; the former group was not very popular but the latter achieved several crossover hits including “Sincerely”, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. Several of Chess's releases gave a writing credit to Alan Freed.
During the 1950s, Leonard and Phil Chess handled most of the production. They brought in legendary producer, Ralph Bass in 1960 to handle the gospel output and some of the blues singers. Bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon was also heavily involved in organizing blues sessions for the label, and is now credited retroactively as a producer on some re-releases. During the 1960s, the company's A&R manager and chief producer for soul/R&B recordings was Roquel "Billy" Davis, who had previously worked with Motown founder Berry Gordy on songs for Jackie Wilson, Etta James, Marv Johnson and on early Motown releases.
In 1958, Chess began producing their first LP records which included such albums as “The Best Of Muddy Waters”, “Best Of Little Walter” and “Bo Diddley”.
Chess Records was also known for its regular band of session musicians who played on most of the company's Chicago soul recordings, such as drummer Maurice White and bassist Louis Satterfield, both of whom would later shape the funk group Earth, Wind & Fire; guitarists Pete Cosey, Gerald Sims and Phil Upchurch; pianist Leonard Caston, later a producer with Motown; and organist Sonny Thompson.
In 1969, Chess Records established a subsidiary label called Middle Earth Records in the U.K., which was distributed by Pye Records. The subsidiary specialized in Psychedelic rock and was a joint venture with the Middle Earth Club in London. The Middle Earth label released only 4 albums titles and about a dozen singles before it was closed in 1970.
The company was briefly run by Marshall Chess, son of Leonard, in his position as vice-president between January and October 1969, and then as president, following its acquisition by GRT, before he went on to found Rolling Stones Records. In 1969, the Chess brothers sold the label to General Recorded Tape (GRT) for $6.5 million. In October 1969, Leonard Chess died and by 1972, the only part of Chess Records still operating in Chicago was the recording studio, Ter-Mar Studios.
Although Chess had produced many R&B number ones and major pop hits over the years, it was in 1972 that the label finally reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with Chuck Berry's “My Ding -a-Ling”, a live recording from a concert in Coventry, England. However, this became the company's 'swansong' release. GRT had moved the label to New York City, operating it as a division of Janus Records. Under GRT, Chess effectively vanished as an important force in the recording industry. In August 1975, GRT sold what remained of Chess Records to New Jersey-based All Platinum Records.
In the early 1980s, noticing that much of the Chess catalog was unavailable, Marshall Chess was able to convince Joe and Sylvia Robinson, who ran All Platinum, to re-issue the catalog themselves under his supervision (All Platinum had been licensing selected tracks out to other companies, which ultimately resulted in the disappearance of some original master tapes). The re-issued singles and LPs sold well, but by the mid-80s, All Platinum fell into financial difficulties and the Chess master recordings were acquired by MCA Records, which itself was later merged into Universal Music imprint, Geffen Records.
In February 1997, MCA started releasing eleven compilation albums for the 50th anniversary of Chess Records.
In the 2000s, Universal's limited-edition re-issue label, Hip-O Select began releasing a series of comprehensive box-sets devoted to such Chess artists as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.
Chess Records was the subject of two films produced in 2008, “Cadillac Records” and “Who Do You Love?”. In addition to the Chess brothers, both films feature portrayals of or based on Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Howlin Wolf and Etta James.