The first and most prominent of the subsidiary imprints started up by Chess Records of Chicago and one that was home to some of the bigger names associated with the major label over the years.

After buying out Evelyn Aron for whom he worked at Aristocrat Record in 1950, Leonard Chess renamed the label after himself and mainly concentrated on blues for the first few years as their roster was stripped of its rock acts due to personal problems and lack of commercial returns.

By 1952 they had built up the Chess label’s roster to the point where they needed another outlet to house new acts and thus Checker was born. Longtime studio bandleader Sax Mallard was given his own releases to kick the label off, while Muddy Waters’ sideman, Little Walter scored the first huge hit for the company and would be its biggest blues act for the rest of the decade, to be joined soon by Lowell Fulson as another keeping the blues image at the forefront.

Their initial rock successes came from some unlikely sources – Danny Overbea and Mitzi Mars – artists without much staying power and it looked for a time that this field was going to prove to be as much trouble for Checker as it had been for Chess in the early 1950’s. But then they signed Bo Diddley in 1955 who hit #1 with his debut and gave them instant credibility in the market and with parent company Chess simultaneously making huge strides in the genre, more important artists began coming on board starting with The Flamingos and other vocal groups who followed in their wake, in addition to white Louisianan star Dale Hawkins who gave them inroads into that niche as well.

An earlier signing, veteran rock singer, pianist and composer Paul Gayten continued making his own records as well as taking up production chores for the imprint. Also of note Aretha Franklin cut her first records, as a teen gospel act, for Checker, while Sam Cooke’s younger brother L.C. Cooke also cut sides for them as did a pre-stardom Joe Tex, showing they had a good sense of talent even if they couldn’t always draw it out of the artists and capitalize on it.

By the early sixties however, aside from a still potent Diddley, they were scoring with just minor dance rock records by the Vibrations and a few left-field releases by others, leaving it to their blues roster which now included Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Milton and Koko Taylor, along with Fulson who enjoyed consistent sales for years, to serve as the commercial backbone the label. By mid-decade however they regained their rock footing with hits by Tommy Tucker, Sugar Pie DeSanto, The Knight Brothers, Eddie & Ernie, Fontella Bass, Bobby Moore, Gene Chandler and others, which was also notable in the fact that their primary artists from throughout their run were black.

In 1969 the Checker Records imprint was sold by the Chess brothers to GRT in 1969, not long before Leonard Chess unexpectedly passed away and the label itself folded shop in 1971 after a final flurry of hits by Little Milton.

Though their stylistic diversity and overall game plan followed that of Chess Records, while the personnel for the respective labels was admittedly often determined by which one had an open slot for the type of performer they’d just signed, their success over two decades showed the wisdom in that approach. Far from being merely a depository for second tier acts, Checker Records stood on its own as an outlet for a diverse array of music for two notable genres over two decades.

CHECKER RECORDS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

SAX MALLARD: Slow Caboose (7) (Checker 750; March, 1952)
SAX MALLARD: Teen Town Strut! (5) (Checker 755; May, 1952)
THE ENCORES: When I Look At You (7) (Checker 760; August, 1952)
THE ENCORES: Young Girls, Young Girls (4) (Checker 760; August, 1952)