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Leone’s Legends: Chess Records, a legacy of great music

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 "Spoonful".

All of these artists and songs are available on iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora, now "git yoself in tha mood, and git down with the blues y'all!"