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

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...