Chess Records released a lot of music in its time.....R&B, gospel, soul, early rock 'n' roll, and even some jazz.....but first and foremost, Chess was a blues label, and what a blues label it was! For over twenty years, Chess released recordings by every major blues performer from Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Memphis Slim, Buddy Guy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Lowell Fulson, Percy Mayfield, and just about everybody else you can think of during that time span. If you listen to the blues, you either have a Chess recording in one format or another, or you have a recording of a song that was originally recorded at Chess. Even now, over 35 years after it shut down for good, the label is as essential to the blues as oxygen is to life.
Chess Records was started by two brothers, Polish immigrants, named Leonard and Phil Chess. The brothers owned the Macomba Lounge on Chicago's South Side. The club catered exclusively to blacks and so the Chess brothers were familiar with the artists and recordings of the time. In the late 40's, a Hollywood agent stopped by the club to hear singer Andrew Tibbs. Leonard Chess figured that if Tibbs was good enough to record in Hollywood that he could probably record Tibbs himself, so he did just that, buying in to tiny Aristocrat Records. The recording of Tibbs caused much heartburn, however. The A-side, "Union Man Blues," caused union drivers to destroy the record in mass quantities to the point that the Chess brothers had to smuggle the records out themselves. The B-side, "Bilbo Is Dead," about the death of Mississippi's segregationist senator, Theodore Bilbo, was banned throughout the South. Despite all that, the record was a moderate two-sided hit.
Most of the rest of Aristocrat's output veered toward jazz and jazz-related recordings, with the exception of Tibbs' recordings and another young man from Mississippi named Muddy Waters. When the label changed its name from Aristocrat to Chess in 1950 on the advice of a southern record distributor, the second recording for the newly-dubbed Chess Records was Waters' "Rolling Stone." The recording not only got Muddy Waters' career in gear, it also, as author Peter Guralnick put it in Feel Like Going Home, "set the tone for the new Chess label and undoubtedly influenced the entire course of post-war blues recording."
"Rolling Stone" was a major hit for the type music it represented, and it sent Leonard Chess on a pilgrimage of sorts throughout the Deep South, searching not only for distributors and record stores, but also for talent. While stopping in Memphis, he encountered Sun Records head Sam Phillips, who recorded many of the Memphis-area artists like Bobby Bland, B. B. King, Walter Horton, and Howlin' Wolf. Chess initially distributed sides from Wolf and some of Phillips' other artists, but ended up signing Howlin' Wolf to an exclusive contract and bringing the big man to the Windy City. From that point, Wolf became Muddy Waters' biggest rival not only on the label, but in the city. "Moanin' At Midnight" captures the essence of Howlin' Wolf the best of any of his tunes. Try driving down a dirt road late at night with the windows down and not be just a little bit spooked when this songs comes on. Equally menacing is one of Wolf's biggest hits, the now familiar (thanks to its presence on endless Viagra commercials) "Smokestack Lightning."
By the mid 50's, Chess had a monopoly on Chicago-area blues artists, with the Big Four (Waters, Wolf, Little Walter, and Sonny Boy Williamson) all taking up residence at the label. Little Walter Jacobs got his start as a teenager, backing Muddy Waters early country-blues recordings and soon became THE harmonica player in Chicago. Nobody played the harmonica like Jacobs did. He introduced sounds that, while now part of every harmonica player's repertoire, were previously unheard of back in the early 1950's.....the saxophone-like bursts, the low moans, the chilling echoes....all of this was uncharted territory until he boldly stepped in. He was not only a master of technique, but he was also the consumate bandmate, capable of blowing the house down during his own solos, but also playing tasteful background fills when it was somebody else's turn to shine. Through his chosen instrument, he was capable of bringing forth joy and exuberance on his first hit, the instrumental, "Juke," and was capable of expressing pain and loss on a mournful track like "Last Night." He was the first and still the best, as every harmonica player worth his salt will testify even today.
Sonny Boy Williamson
We discussed Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) a few months back. Williamson had already recorded prior to his time with Chess, with Trumpet Records out of Jackson, MS. When Trumpet went under, his contract was sold to Chess. Nearly as innovative on harmonica as Walter Jacobs, he was a unique and gifted songwriter with an unusual and sometimes surreal perspective on things. He recorded over 70 records for Checker, the subsidiary started by the Chess brothers in 1952. The large number of artists who have recorded Williamson's songs over the years (including The Who, who recorded "Eyesight To The Blind" for the rock opera, Tommy, and the Allman Brothers, who recorded "One Way Out," a song Willamson borrowed from Elmore James and made his own) is the best testimony to Sonny Boy Williamson's talents. A fine example of Williamson's unique outlook on everyday issues is his song, "Fattening Frogs For Snakes."
Of course, you cannot have a discussion of Chess Records without Willie Dixon. Dixon originally signed on with Chess as a recording artist, but made his mark as a songwriter (with an endless number of tunes, including "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Evil," "Little Red Rooster," "My Babe," "I Can't Quit You Baby," "Spoonful," "Wang Dang Doodle," and "You Shook Me"), record producer, talent scout, and session musician during the label's formidable years. He is probably the most influential bluesman of that time, next to Muddy Waters, and his songs served as a link between the blues and rock 'n' roll as many acts recorded them, such as the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Allmans, the Grateful Dead, and Led Zeppelin. Check out Muddy Waters performing Dixon's tune, "You Shook Me," with the great Earl Hooker on slide guitar.
Other major artists at the time who recorded for Chess included John Lee Hooker, Lowell Fulson ("Reconsider Baby"), Eddie Boyd ("Five Long Years"), Willie Mabon ("I Don't Know"), Otis Rush ("So Many Roads"), and Jimmy Witherspoon. There were also other musicians who contributed mightily to the Chess sound behind the scenes in the studio, such as piano men Otis Spann, Johnnie Johnson, and Lafayette Leake, guitarists Jimmy Rogers, Hubert Sumlin, Robert Lockwood Jr., Luther Tucker, and Buddy Guy, drummers Fred Below, Earl Phillips, S. P. Leary, and Odie Payne, and harmonica players like Junior Wells, James Cotton, Mojo Buford. Most of these artists eventually made recordings of their own, either with Chess or with other labels. Friday Blues Fix will be looking at some of these artists in future posts.
Chess actually began losing steam in the early 60's, as far as blues went anyway. Changing tastes more toward R&B and soul led to part of this, plus Chess began investing in radio, buying an AM and FM station in Chicago during the 60's. Sonny Boy Williamson died in 1965 and Little Walter died from injuries suffered in a street fight in 1968. In the late 60's, there was actually an attempt to modernize the sounds of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, but it was unsuccessful. There were also attempts to team up their aging blues artists with some of the modern rockers like Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, and Steve Winwood. The Chess brothers eventually sold the label in 1969, and Leonard Chess died soon afterward. Phil Chess and Leonard's son, Marshall continued with the label until it folded in the mid 70's.
During the 1980's, the label's catalog was revived, largely though the efforts of Marshall Chess. The songs ended up under the control of MCA Records, who released nearly all of the label's original albums, plus some new collections and box sets. This is where many blues fans, including yours truly, were able to experience the music for the first time. MCA released these sets for budget prices, so you were able to buy several at a time. I can remember plugging these into my stereo and listening to them into the wee hours of the night. Today, the Chess catalog is owned by Universal Music, which continues to release the songs on a regular basis.
It is impossible to cover the impact that Chess Records had on the music industry as a whole. We haven't even scratched the surface today, having left off many of the artists who made their mark in other genres, such as R&B (Etta James, the Moonglows, the Dells, Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart), jazz (Ramsey Lewis, Sonny Stitt), and, most of all, rock 'n' roll, with groundbreaking recordings by two of the pioneers, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. First and foremost, however, Chess Records will always be remembered as the gold standard for blues labels.
Howlin' Wolf - Ditto with the Wolf. All of his Chess output is phenomenal. Start out with hisDefinitive Collection, pick up the double album set that includes his earliest output, along with his "Rocking Chair" album, then move directly to the box set. I actually prefer the Wolf's box set to Waters'.
Little Walter - Walter has had several fine sets over the years, including a two-album set called Boss Blues Harmonica that is sadly, no longer in print. There is still plenty to choose from, including a 20 song set called His Best, and 2009's huge set, The Complete Chess Masters (1950-1967) that encompasses his entire Chess output.
Jimmy Rogers - Rogers was a part of Muddy Waters' first band for Chess, but he also had a very nice solo career with Chess, recording some songs that now stand as classics of 1950's Chicago blues. He walked away from the music scene in the early 60's, but returned in the 70's and enjoyed success until his death in 1997. Several years ago, the set His Best was released and included all of his hit songs from the Chess era.
If you can find it, the collection Drop Down Mama is a fantastic look at some of Chess' lesser known, more downhome musicians, such as Johnny Shines, Blue Smitty, Honeyboy Edwards, Floyd Jones, and Robert Nighthawk, whose incredible "Sweet Black Angel" is included.
There are also some fine collections of Chess recordings, including a box set that's as essential as it gets, plus some releases capitalizing on the 2009 movie, Cadillac Records, a biopic of sorts about Leonard Chess and several of the artists. However, if you have to choose between the soundtrack recordings and the originals, make sure you have the originals in hand before settling for the imitators. You'll find a world of difference in the two.