Screens & Tech
A brief history of Chess Records
Published: June 6, 2012
When crafting a history of the blues, starting with the story of two Jewish brothers fresh off the boat from Poland may seem an odd place to begin. But such is the starting point of Chess Records, a label that during its heyday in the '50s and '60s established its place on the cutting edge of American popular music. In the process, Chess established the modern blues form for a mass audience, eventually shepherding the transition into R&B, rock 'n' roll, and even soul.
Led by those aforementioned brothers, Phil and Leonard Chess (both of whom changed their surname from the impenetrably Polish "Czyz") first began their love affair with the blues after hearing it played on the streets of Chicago. Starting from their first major signing in 1950, blues legend Muddy Waters, the brothers Chess would continue to build a stable of artists still unrivaled for an independent label, including Howlin' Wolf, rock 'n' roll pioneers Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, soul singers Etta James and Fontella Bass, and off-kilter choices including poet and songwriter Shel Silverstein and jazzmen Gene Ammons and Ramsey Lewis.
Though the Chess story is available in distilled form through two movies and a handful of books, it's a tale best experienced through the music: particularly the expansive three-disc Chess Box compilation.
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