Chess Records Co-Founder Phil Chess Dies at 95by Best Classic Bands Staff
Label signed Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and more
Phil Chess, whose record label Chess Records released classic recordings by Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Etta James and other giants of early rock ’n’ roll, blues and R&B, died on October 18 in Tucson, Arizona. A cause of death was not reported. He was 95.
Phil Chess, along with his older brother Leonard Chess (who died in 1969), launched their label in Chicago in 1950, with the intention of capturing the blues and nascent rhythm and blues music then popular in that city. The roots of Chess Records go back to 1947, when Leonard bought part-ownership in the Aristocrat label. He brought Phil into the business three years later and they founded Chess Records that year, also bringing in a third partner, Evelyn Aron.
The label was a success from the start—Gene Ammons’ “My Foolish Heart/“You” was its first release and it sold briskly. In 1951 the Chess brothers began an association with another new company, the Memphis Recording Service, owned by Sam Phillips. Chess took on the distribution of “Rocket 88,” a song credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats but actually recorded by Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm. The single would later be credited by many historians as being the first true rock ’n’ roll record.
As Chess Records took off, the brothers began signing numerous Chicago artists, including bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon, singer/harmonica player Little Walter, guitarist/singer Buddy Guy and bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), as well as those named above. The recordings released by Chess not only sold well in the United States (particularly those of Berry), but reached England, where young rock ’n’ roll bands eagerly covered their songs. The Rolling Stones, on their album 12×5, paid tribute to Chess with their song “2120 S. Michigan Avenue,” which the band—after a Muddy Waters song—recorded at the Chess studio located at that address.
Phil Chess was born Fiszel Czyż in Częstochowa, Poland, on March 27, 1921. Like many Eastern European Jews, he came to the United States with his family in search of more freedom, arriving in 1928. His name was Americanized to Philip upon his arrival. After Phil’s discharge from the Army in 1946, he and his brother co-operated Chicago’s Macomba Lounge, which burned down in 1950, the year Chess Records started.
The Chess brothers also started an offshoot, Checker Records, in 1952, and Argo Records (later changed to Cadet) in 1955. In 1968, they sold Chess Records to GRT Records, and Phil Chess retired in 1972. In 2013, the brothers were given the Recording Academy’s Trustees Awards for non-performers. Although Leonard Chess has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Phil has not been as of yet. Both brothers are in the Blues Hall of Fame.
Listen to Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” a Chess classic