Music: Pioneering record label founder Phil Chess dies at 95
This comes on the heels of yesterday's post on the re-emergence of Chuck Berry at 90, with a new record.
Phil Chess, co-founder of Chicago’s legendary Chess Records, a label credited with helping to invent rock ‘n’ roll, has died in Tucson, Arizona, at 95.
Mr. Chess and his brother Leonard Chess arrived in America as little boys, two Jewish immigrant kids from Poland. They started Chess in 1950, recording Muddy Waters, Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and other top musicians who spread the gospel of the blues. Teens in England and around the world heard the so-called “race music” Chess helped popularize, and the cross-pollination helped birth rock.
As Waters once put it, “The blues had a baby, and they named it rock ‘n’ roll.”
Chess could be described as the midwife. In 1951, the label released what some consider the first rock record: “Rocket ’88,” by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, including a young Ike Turner.
In 1977, a Chess record went to outer space. The Voyager mission carried recordings including Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
Mr. Chess died Tuesday evening at his 30-acre ranch in Tucson, said his daughter, Pam. For decades, he kept in touch with many Chess artists, she said. “He talked to B.B. King all the time on the phone. He ran into Ramsey Lewis six or so years ago in San Diego,” she said. “He talked to Chuck Berry.”
The music scene would have been very different without him and his brother, Chicago bluesman and club owner Buddy Guy said Wednesday.
The Chess Records story also was dramatized in the 2008 movie “Cadillac Records,” featuring Beyonce, Adrien Brody, Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright.
Before founding the label, the Chess brothers owned the Macomba Lounge at 39th and Cottage Grove, said Phil Chess’ son, Terry. When one of the club’s performers was asked by someone else to record their music, “My father and my uncle looked at each other and said, ‘Why don’t we do it?’ ” Terry Chess said.
Neither played an instrument or knew much about music. “The Chess Brothers didn’t literally make the music in the studio, but they got it out the door and reaped the rewards,” Nadine Cohodas wrote in a book about Chess, “Spinning Blues Into Gold.”
Blues and R&B classics poured out of Chess, performed by countless artists who put their own spin on the songs. While at Chess, Willie Dixon wrote “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man” for Waters, as well as “You Need Love.”