The story of Chess Records

There are loads of famous record companies that have made their mark on the musical world. Companies like Motown and Sun Records have helped shape the face of American popular music and played a massive role in popularising such genres as gospel, blues, and country music. There are many more record companies these days than there used to be, but it’s arguable whether any of them have had the wonderful influence and impact of the older ones.

One of the most influential and important record companies in pop music history was, undoubtedly, the now-defunct Chess Records. Founded in Chicago in 1950, by Phil and Leonard Chess, the company were pioneers in the genre of rock music, most notably blues. It’s time we looked deeper and found out more about the most famous record label you’ve never heard of.

Early origins

Phil and Leonard Chess were Jewish immigrants who moved to the Midwestern United States from Poland. The brothers had always had a deep love of music, and this led to Leonard buying a stake in Aristocrat Records around about 1947. Three years later Phil was brought on board, and the brothers became sole owners. Evelyn Aron was also brought in later in 1950, and the name of the company was changed to Chess Records. The Chess brothers didn’t hang about, and the company’s first single, Gene Ammons’ “My Foolish Heart” was released later that same year.

Making waves

The company really began to take off the following year, when the Chess brothers started a very successful association with Sam Phillips, the founder of the world-famous Sun Records. This collaboration secured many top and successful recordings for Chess Records. One of the most notable was “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner and His Delta Cats. There were also plenty of influential and important artist to come out of the label around this time, such as Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters. It’s fair to say that Chess Records was making waves across the musical landscape, both at home and abroad.

Later years

As well as producing wonderful songs, and recording artists, Chess was also known to have some of the finest session musicians in the industry, including such luminaries as Louis Satterfield, and Pete Cosey. By 1969 the company was in good health and had established itself as one of the leading blues labels in the United States. The brothers then made the decision to sell the label to GRT for a few million dollars – unfortunately, Leonard passed away later that year. The company was defunct by 1975, but their impact on music was undeniable. Geffen Records currently owns and manages the Chess Records back catalog.

As you can see, Chess Records played a massive role in helping to shape the musical scene of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Many of the greatest and most influential artists from that era got a helping hand from Chess Records. In fact, renowned music critic Cub Koda once described Chess Records as being “The greatest blues label America ever had.” High praise indeed, and something that illustrates the importance and magnitude of this once-great label.