"Wow, you guys are really getting it on," Chuck Berry allegedly exclaimed on watching the Rolling Stones record "Down the Road Apiece" in Chicago. In June, 1964, the Rolling Stones spent two days at the studio owned by Chess Records, trying hard not to appear too eager and excited in the presence of so many of their musical idols. Muddy Waters, whose song, "Rollin' Stone", had given the group their name, helped carry in their equipment and, later on, they chatted with Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy. In the background, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson argued about a woman from Kentucky.
The Rolling Stones had arrived at a mecca of blues music to find many of their musical influences thrilled that this group of skinny Englishmen with long hair and pale faces were breathing new life into their old songs. The permanent engineer at the studio, Ron Malo, who had recorded Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley in the Fifties, helped to sharpen their sound. Marshall Chess, the son of Leonard Chess, one of the two brothers who started the record company in 1947, had helped organise their visit: "I was aware of the scene happening in England and I very much wanted to get into that scene myself. I was the same age." Several years later, he was working intimately with the Rolling Stones and jumping gleefully into their hedonistic way of life.
Intense poverty drove the Chess family to leave Poland and emigrate to America in 1928. By the early Forties, the two brothers, Leonard and Phil, owned several bars and nightclubs in the black district of Chicago, called the South Side. The Mocamba was their largest nightclub and Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine and Gene Ammons, among many others, performed there. During the Forties, thousands of black Americans exhausted by the numbing poverty of Mississippi and Alabama, were drawn to the huge industrial cities of the north by the promise of a more fruitful life. They did not leave their music behind. The South Side was a dynamic, sometimes violent, area where blues music poured out of every bar.
In 1947, Leonard and Phil Chess began to sign local artists such as Muddy Waters to Aristocrat Records which soon became Chess Records. Their tenure running various nightclubs put them in an ideal position to judge what the black audience wanted to hear. In Chicago, the rural acoustic blues music that the black immigrants brought with them became increasingly amplified and refined. It was Muddy Waters with his song, Feel Like Goin' Home, that really established both Chess Records and himself in the black music world. With Willie Dixon as the producer, Chess Records released a flow of masterpieces in the late Forties and throughout the Fifties.
Apart from their label Argo, which dealt primarily with jazz musicians such as Sonny Stitt and James Moody, Chess Records concentrated on blues music and black rock'n'roll. "Rocket 88", recorded by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats in March 1951, is now considered the first rock'n'roll single. Their intense focus on these two genres of music actually led Leonard and Phil Chess to turn down an offer from Sam Phillips to buy Sun Records, whose roster included an unknown Elvis Presley. Later, they claimed "we didn't consider ourselves a hillbilly label at that time". Marshall Chess, who started working in the company when he was 12, remembers Chess Records as "an amazing, happy place where there was a lot of laughter. It was full of these crazy, eccentric characters."
The success of Chess Records continued into the Sixties. Their experiments in doo-wop and soul music, with the likes of the Dells, Etta James, Billy Stewart and Fontella Bass, were popular but often dwarfed by the might of Motown Records and Atlantic Records. In 1969, Leonard and Phil Chess sold the company to GRT for a large sum but held on to the publishing rights. Leonard Chess died a few months later. Marshall Chess remembers GRT as "people from California who had no idea what they bought and ruined it day by day. After about a year, I quit. They wanted to run it like a steel business."
The following year, he was invited to run Rolling Stone Records. For seven years he worked for the Rolling Stones at their most decadent, producing the notorious documentary, Cock Sucker Blues, as well as being credited as executive producer on seven of their albums. "It was like having a fabulous, hot love affair that cools off at the end. People say, `Do you still hang out with them?' I say, `No. Do you hang out with your ex-lover?'
"I loved that period of my life and I learnt a tremendous amount during it. But at the end, I began to realise that it was wearing me down. I was taking five kinds of drugs. Heroin was just one of them."
To honour the 50th anniversary of Chess Records, MCA Records has released 36 CDs this year. Beautifully packaged and digitally remastered, they comprise rare and unreleased songs as well as the many pivotal recordings that changed the musical landscape of the 20th century. Marshall Chess is still enthusiastic: "They put a disc in the Voyager space craft with all the cultural things of the earth on it and they put "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry on it. I tell my children it's amazing that your grandfather produced a record and it's representing the earth to aliens. That's pretty good for immigrants from Poland."Reuse content