Friends and neighbors, don't worry, this is about Chess Records
not chess records. Chess, while a very intellectually stimulating
game I'm sure, whom it is that holds the records for play is not a
'legend' I will choose bore you with now.
Rather, this weeks column is going to focus on what I believe to
be one of the most important record labels in modern music history.
First, here is a breif background on just how important the "label"
was in the development of American music. Well known labels like
Atlantic, Capitol, and Columbia were where (if you were lucky and
talented) you ended up, after proving yourself on smaller labels
like Chess, Sun (Elvis Presley's first label) and Stax. In years to
come many of these independent labels were bought out by the bigger
companies. So let's talk about Chess Records shall we?
Chess Records was the brainchild of Polish immigrant
brothers Leonard and Phil Chess in Chicago in 1950 after folding
their first label called Aristocrat, which was formed in 1947. The
Chess Bros. were nightclub entrepreneurs initially, but soon became
impressed by the energy and music of the burgeoning blues scene in
post-war Chicago. Like so many great musical phenomena there had to
be some kismet afoot. The Chess brothers meeting of prolific
songwriting powerhouse Willie Dixon in the early 50's became that
beginning. But it was when a light-skinned, longhaired guitar
player named Chuck Berry walked in with an out of tune guitar and a
suitcase full of recorded songs that Chess Records came up on the
radar for Americans across the country.
Unlike Sun Records visionary Sam Phillips, who left his blues
roots aside after the success of Elvis Presley, the Chess
Brothers continued to record authentic blues and rhythm and blues
artists. The prolific record of the Chess label is a legacy of hits
and artists unparalleled in modern music history.
Check out this lineup: Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Etta James,
Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Memphis
Slim, and Little Walter. The fact that all these artists recorded
for Chess while in their prime is beyond miraculous. It was as if
the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Cream, the
Kinks, Traffic, and the Who were all on the same label at the same
time. Yes, my friends these artists without argument are as
important in the history of rock and roll as any of the above
musicians. Don't believe me? Just ask any of these artists who they
idolized, and who they wanted to play alongside when they came to
the States. It was without a doubt Chuck, Muddy, Etta, and Bo.
I can tell you that I, of course, was influenced by the Beatles,
the Stones and all the above 60's rock icons mentioned above. But
it was the moment I heard the blues music of these superhuman
talents (a genre that was kept from us do to racism and fear) that
I knew I had found my musical home.
So let me now recommend a "must listen" playlist of songs from
the Chess catalogue.
Muddy Waters' "Got My Mojo Working", "Louisiana Blues", "She
Moves Me", and "I Can't be Satisfied". Bo Diddley's classics "Mona"
and "Can't Judge a Book by It's Cover". Etta James
bluesy "I'd Rather Go Blind" and just in case you've never been to
a wedding "At Last". Little Walter's seminal harmonica vehicle
"Juke", as well as Howlin' Wolf's much copied but never topped
"Ain't Superstitious", "Red Rooster", "Smokestack Lighting", and
All of these artists and songs are available on iTunes, Spotify,
and Pandora, now "git yoself in tha mood, and git down with the