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How the blues brothers behind Chess Records made all the right moves

Leonard and Phil Chess's legendary Chicago label helped invent rock'n'roll with Ike Turner, brought  the minimalist blues of Muddy Waters, and provided a direct influence on the young Rolling Stones

Frank Zappa once said that the best years of rock were when records were produced by "cigar-chomping old guys who looked at the product that came and said, 'I don't know. Who knows what it is? Record it, stick it out. If it sells, all right.'"

Leonard and Phil Chess were prototypical cigar-chomping, old-fashioned record men who took a chance on music they didn't understand. Jewish immigrants from Poland, they got into the record business more or less by chance: Leonard bought a liquor store in an African American neighbourhood on the south side of Chicago, and did well enough that he opened a small nightclub called the Macomba Lounge. It was a rough ghetto bar, patronised by prostitutes and drug dealers, but from the start it was known for having good music. In the late-1940s, that meant it had jazz groups playing bebop, pop tunes, and mellow blues ballads. That was what the better-paying black patrons preferred to hear, and when Leonard got involved with a small local label, Aristocrat Records, that was what he intended to record.

It was only after the first few records went nowhere that he took a chance on another kind of musician, a Mississippi singer who was too raw and country-sounding to have pleased the crowds at the Macomba. In fact, when Leonard Chess first heard Muddy Waters sing I Can't Be Satisfied, in a Delta growl backed with a whining electric slide guitar, he couldn't imagine it pleasing anyone. "What's he saying?" he asked. "Who's going to buy that?"
Fortunately, his partner in Aristocrat, Evelyn Arons, suggested that some of the black southerners who had moved north in search of jobs might enjoy the sounds of home. So Chess pressed 3,000 singles, they sold out in a day, and six decades later Waters's recording is remembered as the first masterpiece of electric Chicago blues.

In a movie – and there have been several based on this story – Chess would have instantly seen the light and devoted himself to creating further blues masterpieces. But in real life he was not a patron of the arts; he was a businessman trying to cut popular hits. By 1950 Arons had been replaced by Leonard's brother Phil and the label was called Chess, but most of its releases continued to be by jazz saxophonists.

Meanwhile Waters was also trying to reach a broader audience, adding a drummer and harmonica player to his live shows to create a tight, tough band. He was frustrated when Chess refused to mess with a winning formula and insisted that he keep making stark guitar-and-bass records like Rollin Stone, a one-chord chant that was archaic even by the standards of rural Mississippi. Neither of them could have imagined that a dozen years later five lads in London would like that record enough to name a band after it.
That is the paradox of the Chess story. The brothers were not musical visionaries; they were small-time "indie" record men making a quick buck from the poorest, least respected people in America. But their cheaply recorded, bread-and-butter discs of local street musicians and bar bands still sound as fresh today as they did 60 years ago. By failing to be timely, they succeeded in being timeless.

They were also lucky, and unusually loyal to their artists. That loyalty did not prevent them from playing some tricky games with publishing and royalty payments, but it meant that down-home bluesmen like Waters and Howlin' Wolf continued to make records long after other indie labels had switched to a trendy teen style called rock'n'roll.

Leonard Chess and Waters had a particularly close relationship, and it served both of them well. When Waters finally persuaded Chess to record his full band, he incidentally brought the label its biggest blues hit-maker: Little Walter was barely out of his teens, and reshaped the course of blues harmonica by amplifying his instrument and playing it like a jazz saxophone. It was a fresh, hip sound, and in 1952 he cut an instrumental called Juke that stayed at the top of the R&B charts for eight weeks. Then, in 1955, Waters introduced Chess to an unknown songwriter from St Louis named Chuck Berry. In retrospect, the list of artists who were associated with Chess in that first decade forms a pantheon of electric blues and blues-influenced rock'n'roll: Waters, Wolf, Walter, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Berry, Bo Diddley. There were some startling one-offs as well: In 1951, a teenage Ike Turner recorded a romping boogie-woogie called Rocket 88 at Sun Studios in Memphis, soon to be the birthplace of rockabilly – but Sam Phillips had not yet started the record label that would spawn Elvis Presley, so the disc appeared on Chess. When Presley hit, Chess got its own white rock'n'rollers, Dale Hawkins and Bobby Charles. Many of the label's biggest hits in this period came from doo-wop groups.
When people talk about the "Chess sound", though, they are not thinking of rockabilly or doo-wop, or even of the brilliant soul records the label produced in the 1960s with Etta James, Fontella Bass and Little Milton. They are thinking of the stripped-down blues discs that, despite changing fashions, always remained among the label's mainstays.


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