Phil Chess, co-founder of music label that brought blues to the world, dies at 95

Phil Chess, who co-founded the Chicago-based music label Chess, which brought American blues, soul and early rock music to an international audience and influenced generations of musicians including the Rolling Stones, died Oct. 19 at his home in Tucson. He was 95.

Chess’ nephew Craig Glicken confirmed the death to the Chicago Sun-Times but did not provide a cause. Chess’ older brother, Leonard, who also started the label, supervised many of the blues recordings and was its public face, died in 1969.

In its 18 years as a family-owned business, Chess gave birth to such seminal records as Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” Etta James’ “At Last,” Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man,” Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” and The Dells’ “Stay In My Corner.”

British-born blues enthusiasts Mick Jagger and Keith Richards named the Rolling Stones after a 1951 Chess recording by Waters, “Rollin’ Stone.” The rock band coalesced in the early 1960s after Richards spotted Jagger, a childhood playmate, at a train stop; Jagger was carting two Chess albums.

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The Rolling Stones, then well established, made a pilgrimage to record at the Chess studios in 1965. They named an instrumental after Chess’ address, 2120 South Michigan Avenue.

“Phil and Leonard Chess were cuttin’ the type of music nobody else was paying attention to – Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy (Williamson), Jimmy Rogers, I could go on and on – and now you can take a walk down State Street today and see a portrait of Muddy that’s 10 stories tall,” blues guitarist Buddy Guy, a former Chess artist, told the Sun-Times. “They started Chess Records and made Chicago what it is today, the blues capital of the world.”

The brothers were children when they came to the United States as Jewish immigrants from a Polish village without running water or electricity. They began their music careers in 1946 as proprietors of the El Mocambo, an eatery on the predominantly black South Side that they converted into an after-hours jazz club. Although initially patronized by pimps and prostitutes, the bar developed a reputation as a hangout for Chicago’s bebop musicians.

The following year, they bought a stake in Aristocrat, an unsuccessful pop music label, initially to record jazz performers. But it was the amped-up delta blues sound of Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” (1948) that gave them an initial burst of success. The record reportedly sold out its first 3,000 copies in one day.

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By 1950, the brothers had bought out their Aristocrat partners and renamed the label Chess. Spinoff labels Checker and Argo (later renamed Cadet) soon followed.

Leonard Chess became well known through his handling of the label’s biggest names in blues and rock. Phil Chess, more often in the shadows, handled the doo-wop groups and a wide-ranging jazz roster that included pianist Ramsey Lewis, Gene Ammons and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Leonard’s son Marshall, who ran the company’s 1960s rock subsidiary Cadet Concept, was president of the Rolling Stones’ record company in the 1970s.

Of the era’s independent record labels, only New York-based Atlantic could claim a comparable range of talent. But Chess was also criticized in later years for a cavalier attitude toward its artists.

“Life at the company has been compared to sharecropping,” Rich Cohen wrote in his 2004 book, “Machers and Rockers: Chess Records and the Business of Rock & Roll.” “Artists were often paid not in cash but in goods and services, in credit to the company store. These goods were given as if they were gifts, and then later, to the shock of the recipients, subtracted from royalties.”

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Chess, like most indie labels, operated on street-level hustle – and even payola – for radio airplay. In one notorious instance, influential disc jockey Allan Freed was credited as co-writer on Berry’s song “Maybelline,” released by Chess.

Arc Music, the label’s publishing wing, owned most of its artists’ copyrights. In 1977, bluesmen Waters and Willie Dixon, unhappy with their meager royalties, sued Arc and used the settlement money to start their own publishing company, Hoochie Coochie Music.

To increase their records’ airplay, the Chess brothers purchased a radio station in 1963. As the first 24-hour R&B station in the Chicago market, WVON – its call letters stood for “the voice of the Negro” – competed with the local 50,000-watt Top-40 powerhouses WCFL and WLS for young music fans and took an active role in the civil rights movement. A young civil rights activist, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, called the station to report the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

The next year, the brothers sold the station. In 1970, General Recording Tape purchased the company for $6.5 million, and the label ceased to be a family business. The Chess catalogue is owned by Universal Music. Chess stayed on with the company until 1972, then retired to Arizona.

Chess was born Fiszel Czyz on March 27, 1921 in Motal, a village in what is now Belarus. Their father soon immigrated to the United States, started a junkyard business and sent for his family in 1928. He also Anglicized their names. (Leonard was born Lejzor.)

Phil Chess briefly attended Bowling Green State University in Kentucky on a football scholarship, then worked in a liquor store owned by Leonard until he was drafted into the Army in 1943 during World War II. His wife, Sheva Jonesi, died this year. Survivors include a daughter and two sons.

Chess was heralded in later years for its pioneering role in music but, without explanation, it was Leonard and not Phil who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

“Chess not only became the true repository of American blues music, but it also presented black music for the edification of white audiences throughout the world,” the citation read. A film about the company and its roster of artists, “Cadillac Records” (2008), also featured Leonard but not Phil as a character.

Both brothers received a 2013 lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of the Recording Arts and Sciences.

“If you put a scale on the wall and ask me which one was do re mi, I couldn’t tell you and neither could Leonard,” Chess told writer Nadine Cohodas in her 2000 book “Spinning Blues Into Gold. “This (pointing to his ear) could tell you. That’s what told us.”