HISTORY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 

One of the most successful and influential independent record labels of the 1950’s and 60’s, revered as much for their blues roster as their rock artists which allowed them exert a vast amount of control over the fertile Chicago music scene for decades, signing the most promising artists while other companies in the city were able to succeed just on what acts were left over.

The origins of Chess musical dynasty began when the Chess brothers Leonard (born Lejzor Czyz in Poland in 1917) and Phil (b. Find Czyz, 1921) owned and operated the Macomba Lounge on South Cottage Grove on the edge of a predominately black area of Chicago. Naturally they hired local black musicians to perform for their mostly black patrons and when a new start-up record company in town, Aristocrat Records, signed saxophonist Tom Archia who led the house band at the club, it drew Leonard Chess into that orbit.

At the same time Chess had seen the interest in a teenage singer he employed at the club, Andrew Tibbs, and when he learned other companies were planning on signing him he sprang into action, taking him to Aristocrat where Tibbs would become their best selling artist their first two years and a prototype for the soulful melisma-laden style of rock vocals. More importantly it got Chess in the door at a record company and he soon took on added responsibilities, including promoting and distributing records for them.

When Aristocrat’s owner Evelyn Aron and her husband divorced in the spring of 1948, Leonard bought out his shares of the company making him a co-owner and a year and a half later Evelyn Aron decided to move into record distributing with her new husband Art Sheridan and sold her share in Aristocrat to Leonard, bringing with him his brother Phil who’d been running the Macomba in his absence, and they renamed the label after themselves a few months later.

At first their biggest sales came from the blues, as Muddy Waters was by now a star and Andrew Tibbs’s drug dependency had cost them their top rock act. But in 1951 they bough the rights to a record made in Memphis by Ike Turner’s band called “Rocket 88”, which they credited to its vocalist Jackie Brenston and while they would continue to have better success with their blues roster, which soon included another act who got his start recording for Sam Phillips in Memphis, Howlin’ Wolf, the Brenston record re-awakened their interest in rock when that record landed them their first #1 hit. Another chart topper by Rosco Gordon soon followed but in spite of that they found it difficult to build a credible rock lineup as even some future stars like Rufus Thomas and Bobby Lewis only got a few releases while others like the vocal group The Coronets fizzled after one big hit.

Meanwhile their more consistent blues success and the deep Chicago blues scene made up of transplanted Southerners, meant that even more artists from that field showed up at their door including Willie Mabon, Eddie Boyd, Big Walter Horton and (briefly) John Lee Hooker making them arguably the top blues label in the country by the mid-1950’s.

Their rock fortunes changed however when their friendship with rock disc jockey Alan Freed brought The Moonglows to their label, giving them a #1 smash that crossed over into the Pop Charts out of the gate and a string of hits quickly followed.

On the heels of that came their most iconic artist, a St. Louis singer/guitarist named Chuck Berry who brought with him all of the elements required for rock stardom – good looks, clean fiery guitar breaks, sharp songwriting that appealed to the newly diverse teenage audience topped by a wry sense of humor. With their subsidiary label Checker being home to such stars as Bo Diddley, The Flamingos and Dale Hawkins, their empire was growing in leaps and bounds.

The Chess Brothers had always been ones to form beneficial relationships with those in the industry they did business with which got them an entrée into some up and coming artists out of New Orleans including The Hawkettes and Bobby Charles and by the late 1950’s their national pull with distributors made them a natural home for records that initially came out on small labels that were unable to handle the demand for them when they began to catch on as Chess earned hits for themselves simply by picking up the national distribution of such classic rock songs as “Over The Mountain, Cross The Sea” and “Long Lonely Nights” as well as the first hit by Smokey Robinson’s Miracles, “Bad Girl” in 1959.

By the end of the 1950’s however their hold on the music audience started showing signs of weakening as the vocal group craze was shifting from black acts to white, while the impact of pure blues on the charts was weakening as the younger audiences rejected that style as old fashioned. When Chuck Berry faced jail time on bogus charges in the early 1960’s their reign seemed to be coming to an end.

But their fortunes turned once again when Harvy Fuqua of The Moonglows brought his then-girlfriend Etta James to the company and had her cut duets with him that became small hits. Though Fuqua soon left both Chess Records and James herself, she stuck around and though she was placed on subsidiary labels her soulful direction led the Chess Brothers to look for more artists in that emerging style of rock and as a result they’d score hits with everyone from the yearning teen sounds of Jan Bradley, Cookie & The Cupcakes and Jackie Ross to the more gospelish passion of Tony Clarke, Laura Lee and Irma Thomas supplemented by cult artists in that realm like Denise LaSalle, Wayne Cochran, The Valentinos and Barbara Carr. With Chuck Berry’s release from prison leading to a string of memorable hits in the mid-60’s the company was again a force to be reckoned with.

After Leonard Chess’s death in 1969 the company soldiered on with Phil at the helm, but while they scored some additional hits with the arrival of Solomon Burke and the early 70’s commercial revival of Berry and James, who finally was transferred to the primary label, the company was relying almost entirely on artists from their glory days and were further undone by a string of lawsuits until Chess Records finally closed down in 1975.

But of the independent labels that ruled the 1950’s and 60’s only King, Atlantic and Motown can rival Chess in terms of its consistent long term success and overall impact on the sounds that shaped the era.
 
 
CHESS RECORDS DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

ANDREW TIBBS (with SAX MALLARD): You Can’t Win (7) (Chess 1430; August, 1950)
ANDREW TIBBS (with SAX MALLARD): Aching Heart (4) (Chess 1430; August, 1950)
DOC POMUS: Send For The Doctor (5) (Chess 1440; November, 1950)
DOC POMUS: No Home Blues (6) (Chess 1440; November, 1950)