Blue heaven: music mogul Marshall Chess

Chess Records brought the blues to the world. Now Hollywood is in on the act. Simon Hardeman talks to Marshall Chess

With beatific bemusement, Marshall Chess says that he never set out to be a music legend: "It's amazing. Chess Records, then The Rolling Stones, then the birth of hip-hop... I didn't go after one of those things. They just happened."

It was the family business, after all. If his folks had run a grocery, you can bet he would have taken on the firm and expanded it; if they'd been doctors, he would worked his socks off to have his own initials etched into the nameplate; if they been gangsters... well, there's more than a hint of Pacino in the looks of the smiling, spry, 66-year-old I meet in the Covent Garden Hotel.

His father, Leonard, and uncle Phil set up one of the most important record labels in rock history, one so key that they're making not one, but two films about it.

The Czyz brothers, as they were then, had arrived in Chicago in the 1940s, refugees from a Poland where people slept with their horses to keep warm. "My father got into the liquor business in a black neighbourhood because white people didn't want to set up in those neighbourhoods," says Chess. Soon, there was a club called the Macamba Lounge, where it was "jazz, along with hookers and pimps. My father got the idea that black people would spend money. So in 1947, he bought a white label called Aristocrat records."

Young Marshall began by fetching the drinks for an up-and-coming bluesman called Muddy Waters. "Muddy would call me his white grandson," says Chess. The artists who followed Waters on to the (now renamed) Chess label are a pantheon of blues gods: Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley, Memphis Slim, Memphis Minnie, John Lee Hooker, Rufus Thomas, James Elmore, Willie Dixon, Etta James and Buddy Guy and others.

And then there was Chuck Berry. "I was his road manager in 1963 when he came out of prison [Berry did four years after bringing a 14-year-old Apache waitress across a state line] and we were desperate because he was our biggest star. He came right from jail, looking raggedy. My dad gave me $100 and said, 'Take him down to State Street and get him some new clothes.' Then he came right back to our studio and recorded 'Nadine'.

"He was our greatest star," says Chess, who is still Berry's music publisher. "We were the hottest blues label. Then rock'n'roll started, and we had Chuck and Bo Diddley, and they crossed over." In part, that was because the Chess brothers played the notorious, but inescapable, payola game that led to influential DJs like Alan Freed getting writers' credits (and so royalties) on records in exchange for playing them. "He [Freed] played the hell out of Chuck's first record, 'Maybellene', because of that. My father says he made the deal, and by the time he got to Pittsburgh, which was half a day's drive away, my uncle back at home was screaming, 'What's happening? We're getting all these calls for thousands of records!'"

Marshall Chess's biggest solo coup was setting up the Rolling Stones' record label, with the band's now permanent-trademark lips logo. He had become president of Chess, but his father was dead (without leaving a will, which still rankles) and the label was out of family hands. "I was depressed, and I heard the Stones were unhappy with their label and manager. So I got Mick's number and I called him up and came to London.

"I'd met the Stones. I used to go to all the clubs in London, and I was treated like royalty by all these groups because of Chess. I was at the St James club when the guy who worked with Eric Burdon [Chas Chandler] brought over Jimi Hendrix. I was there the night he played his first gig in London. I knew he was good... but I wasn't looking at it musically, I was looking at it more from marketing."

They formed Rolling Stones Records in 1970. But they needed a logo. "The Stones were at a castle near Rotterdam, recording, and on my way there I saw a Shell gas station, and it didn't have the name, just the sign, and I got the instantaneous thing that our logo shouldn't have to need a name. Then that night, sitting round with Keith, Mick and Charlie, I laid it on them. I don't remember how we came up with the tongue and lips specifically."

It's not surprising that the memory blurs at this point. It was the start of a wild ride through the Seventies, all the wilder because Chess lived with the band. "I lived with Keith on Cheyne Walk, and Mick was next door. I knew Anita [Pallenberg], Bianca [Jagger], the whole thing.

"It was all sex and drugs and rock'n'roll. I was taking drugs, everything, sleeping, waking, it was the whole scene. One day, I woke up in Montreux and looked in the mirror, and that night I told Mick: 'I've got to get out of here, man. It's nothing to do with you.'"

A few years later, in 1979, he found that the Chess catalogue was owned by "this black label in Englewood, New Jersey". It was Sugar Hill Records. He wanted to buy it, but they didn't need money, having just released "Rapper's Delight". "So I made a deal with them and began putting out LPs resurrecting Chess. But I was there for all these amazing hits 'White Lines', 'The Message', and so on."

It was there that he met the Sugar Hill rhythm section, who have now been "retrofitted" by Keith Le Blanc to classic Chess tracks by Howlin' Wolf, Waters, James and more, on Chess's latest project, Chess Moves. "Blues purists hate it," he laughs. "The original was the best, the purest, but it's still my job to spread it to new markets. And it works!"

There are two films in production about Chess Records Cadillac Records and Chess. "The first one has Adrien Brody playing my father, Jeffrey Wright playing Muddy Waters, Mos Def playing Chuck Berry, and Beyonc playing Etta James. I heard her version of 'I'd Rather Go Blind', and it blew me away."

Finally, I ask the question that has been nagging at me: "Were you into the music?" Marshall Chess thinks, even grimaces a little. "That's a real hard question. Was I going out like an English fanatic and buying every single by an artist? No. But somehow I was into Chess Records... I think it grew on me. I'm more into it now than I've ever been."

'Chess Moves' is out on 2 June on Commercial

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