Saturday, December 27, 2008

Chess Records

With the release of the movie "Cadillac Records," there is a renewed interest in the history of Chess Records. I wrote this article for the radio station and thought that others would be interested in this legendary record label:

Chess Records

Written by Robert Benson

Legendary record label founder Leonard Chess was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and for good reason. Together with his brother Philip Chess, they founded the quintessential record label of the time whose roster reads as a who’s-who in Blues music. Let’s explore the history of Chess Records:

Brothers Leonard and Philip Chess were Jewish immigrants from Poland who came to Chicago in 1928. They were business partners in liquor sales and by the 1940’s they owned and operated several bars on the south side. One of their largest was a nightclub named the “Macomba,” that featured live entertainment; mainly Blues artists who had migrated to Chicago’s south side from the Mississippi Delta in the 30’s and 40’s.

Quickly realizing that these musicians were not being properly promoted and recorded, they decided to start recording these musicians themselves. In 1947, already aware of what kind of music would appeal to the Black community, the brothers partnered with Charles and Evelyn Aron at Aristocrat Records; who had formed the label specifically to record Blues, Jazz and R&B music.

By 1949, Aristocrat Records (which would ultimately become Chess record in 1950) was a fixture in the music world and some of these early recordings remain some of the most impressive collection of Blues music ever recorded. Their experience in music helped the brothers understanding of their predominantly Black audiences and they knew what this audience craved. But they soon realized that the Blues could be marketed to a much broader audience.

With Philip Chess overseeing the nightclub and offices at Aristocrat/Chess, this allowed Leonard to produce sessions as well as scout around for new and upcoming talent. Through their connections with Chicago radio stations and nightclubs, the pair was able to build an up and coming Blues musician, Muddy Waters, into the area leading Blues attraction.

With the success of Muddy Waters, Blues musicians were drawn to Chicago and Chess records. Artists such as slide guitarist Robert Nighthawk, Willie Dixon, Gene Ammons, Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter (who revolutionized the role of the harmonica in Chicago’s Blues music) were all drawn to Chess- it gave them the chance to record their music and helped promote themselves and the Blues music they loved so much.

However, despite the success, the Chess brothers had with incoming as well as the local talent, they began to search outside of the city for more talent. Leonard was in Memphis and supervised Memphis pianist Roscoe Gordon and also shipped music by Rufus Thomas, Dr. Isaiah Ross, Joe Hill Louis and Bobby Bland up to his brother in Chicago. But one of his greatest finds and one of the top contributors to the label was the music of Chester Arthur Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf.

Many more Blues legends recorded for Chess records in the 1950’s including Memphis Slim, Eddie Boyd, Little Walter, Willie Mabon, John Lee Hooker, Joe Williams, Big Bill Broonzy, and Washboard Sam. Jazzmen Leo Parker, Tab Smith, Otis Spann, Lynn Hope and Eddie Johnson added diversity to the record label.

But in 1955, Chess was able to sign a new talent named Chuck Berry, whose first hit; “Maybellene” added even more credibility to the label. Another new talent was also signed in 1955 (to Checker Records, a subsidiary of Chess), a Mississippi Blues legend named Sonny Boy Williamson. His first recording for the label, “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” was recorded with the help of the Muddy Waters Band. Additionally, Bo Diddley signed in 1955 and produced a two-sided smash hit for Checker, the self-titled ditty called “Bo Diddley and the flipside, “I’m A Man.”

Furthermore, Chess Records branched out and signed and recorded two Black vocal groups, the Flamingos and the Moonglows, whose sentimental singing styles would appeal to both black and white audiences alike. But before their records (“Sincerely” by the Moonglows and “I’ll Be Home” by the Flamingos) could become hits, they were covered by white artists (a common practice back then). The McGuire Sisters recorded “Sincerely” and Pat Boone released his version of the Flamingos’ song “I’ll Be Home.” Although these white artists garnered much of the sales, Chess Records became nationally recognized as a record company that could produce hit music.

In 1956, Chess established a Jazz subsidiary label called Argo. They were able to land some of the biggest and influential Jazz musicians of the time, signing such Jazz greats as Sonny Stitt, Yusef Lateef, James Moody, Gene Ammons, Lou Donaldson, Ahmad Jamal and Ramsey Lewis, among many others. Although Argo was primarily a Jazz label, they also recorded some of the finest female R&B by a singer named Etta James.

Additionally in 1956, Chess had a keen interest in music form New Orleans and signed veteran musician Paul Gayten. Gayten was able to convince others from the area to sign on with Chess including Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Bobby Charles and Eddie Bo.

Chess also had an extensive collection of recordings of gospel and religious music. They devoted an entire series of recordings of sermons by the Rev. C. L. Franklin, who was a pastor at the New Bethel Baptist Church, located in Detroit, Michigan. They became the first record company to record his daughter, Aretha Franklin and their gospel catalog also included albums by the Five Blind Boys, the Soul Stirrers, Alex Bradford and the Violinaires.

By the early 60’s, Chess records was a major player in the music industry, selling records by the thousands. They were able to sign some new, young talented musicians including Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. Etta James made her Chess debut in 1960 and many other female artists signed and recorded with the label including Jan Bradley, Sugar Pie De Santo, Fontella Bass, Jackie Ross, Jo Ann Garrett, Laura Lee as well as a female vocal group called the Gems (that counted Minnie Riperton as a member). Irma Thomas also joined Chess in 1967, recording her music in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

When R&B merged with gospel influenced music, it formulated the foundation for Soul music and right at the top of this transformation was Chess Records. In fact, the late 60’s were extraordinary banner years for the now well–established record label. But in 1968, after the departure of Billy Davis and founding partner Leonard Chess (who left the record label to concentrate his efforts in a radio station that he owned), much of the creative structure was lost and many of the record producers and songwriters departed as well.

In 1969, Leonard and Philip Chess sold Chess Records to a company called General Recorded Tape (GRT) for over six and a half million dollars (plus twenty-thousand shares of GRT stock). The company also suffered a devastating loss when Leonard Chess died that same year. The quality of the music declined and by the summer of 1972, the Chess Chicago offices were scarcely staffed, the distribution company and pressing plants had been closed as well. In fact, the only Chess studio that was in operation was the Chess Ter Mar studios, which were also operating with a skeleton staff. By the summer of 1975, GRT was dismantling what was left of the legendary record label. By August of 1975, all GRT record operations had been shut down and what was left was sold to a New Jersey-based company called All Platinum Records.

A catastrophic event occurred when the Chess building in Chicago was sold and the new owners brought in dumpsters and chain saws and destroyed over 250,000 vinyl records that had been abandoned. In one of the music industry’s most appalling events, classic recordings by Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Etta James, Muddy Waters and countless others were hauled away to the landfill. Luckily, the master tapes survived this apocalyptic event and are now the property of MCA Records which has reissued much of the classic Chess material during the 1980’s and 1990’s.

In retrospect, the innovative genius of the Chess brothers, who certainly had a clear eye for talent, is one of the most compelling stories in music history. The now legendary musicians who recorded music at Chess Records are some of the most influential artists of our generation; still influencing a multitude of young musicians to this day.

List of Chess Records Artists


Muddy Waters
Little Walter
Howlin' Wolf
Sonny Boy Williamson II
Lowell Fulson
Memphis Slim
Jimmy Rogers
John Lee Hooker
Willie Mabon
Buddy Guy
Little Milton
The Flamingos
The Moonglows
Chuck Berry
Bo Diddley
Clarence "Frogman" Henry
The Dells
Billy Stewart
Bobby Charles
Dale Hawkins
Benny Goodman
Gene Ammons
Eddie Bo
Etta James
Jody Williams


Koko Taylor
Fontella Bass
Sugar Pie DeSanto
Jackie Ross
Bob Kames
Laura Lee
Moms Mabley
Larry Williams
Johnny "Guitar" Watson
Jimmy McCracklin
Sonny Stitt
Big Bill Broonzy and Washboard Sam
Dave "Baby" Cortez
Slappy White
Pigmeat Markham

Cadillac Records

Chess Records History Revealed

Cadillac Records is a 2008 musical biopic written and directed by Darnell Martin. The film explores the musical era from the early 1940s to the late 1960s, chronicling the life of the influential Chicago-based record-company executive Leonard Chess, and the singers who recorded for Chess Records.

The film stars Adrien Brody as Chess, Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon, Mos Def as Chuck Berry, Columbus Short as Little Walter, Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, and Beyoncé Knowles as Etta James. The film has been rated R by the MPAA for "pervasive langauge and some sexuality". The film was released in North America on December 5, 2008.

I have not seen the movie, but from what I have read it is not the best, historically speaking. Read on:

Controversy Over the Lack of Bo Diddley in Cadillac Records

One of Chess Records biggest stars in the 50's was iconic rocker Bo Diddley, but there isn't even a mention of him in the new movie about the label, Cadillac Records.
The movie even goes as far as opening with Jeffrey Wright, who plays Muddy Waters, singing “I'm a Man.” Unfortunately, Waters never recorded the song, at least under that title. It is known that Diddley based “I'm a Man” on Waters’ “She Moves Me” and that Waters did recorded a variant of the song, called “Mannish Boy,” but he never officially recorded the song he is singing in the film.

So what happened? Diddley's former manager Margo Lewis has her own ideas. "It's no secret that Bo had real issues with the Chess Brothers and their 'creative accounting practices'.

"It was Bo's recollection that every time he or another performer would go to the Chess offices to ask for their royalties, they were given the keys to a new Cadillac instead. So, in that regard, at least they got the title of the movie right.
"Regardless, we are shocked that the producers would omit such a seminal figure as Bo."

Read more about the movie on the official site:

Your Vinyl Destination

Obviously space limits me from listing all of the recordings from this phenomenal record label. Suffice to say most of the black label Chess and Checker albums by their major Blues and R&B artists are very collectible and will always be very much in demand. Even more collectible are some of the early ‘white’ label promotional albums which were pressed and released on colored vinyl. Let’s explore some of the valuable Chess records (all prices listed are quoted from the “Rockin’ Records Price Guide,” written and distributed by vinyl record historian Jerry Osborne).

Gene Ammons
45 rpm
CHESS (1442 "Soulful Saxophone") $100-200 1959
(Multi-colored vinyl. Promotional issue only.)

Chuck Berry
CHESS (1604 "Maybellene") $75-100 1955
CHESS (1610 "Thirty Days") $50-70 1955
CHESS (1615 "No Money Down") $30-50 1956

7 inch EPs
CHESS (5118 "After School Session") $400-600 1957
CHESS (5118 "Head Over Heels") $400-600 1957
CHESS (5119 "Rock and Roll Music") $400-600 1958
CHESS (5121 "Sweet Little 16") $300-400 1958
CHESS (5124 "Pickin' Berries") $300-400 1958
CHESS (1426 "After School Session") $250-350 1957
CHESS (1432 "One Dozen Berrys") $100-200 1958
CHESS (1435 "Chuck Berry's On Top") $100-200 1959
CHESS (1448 "Rockin' at the Hops") $200-400 1959

Eddie Boyd
45 rpm
CHESS (1523 "Cool Kind Treatment") $200-300 1952
CHESS (1533 "24 Hours") $200-300 1953
CHESS (1541 "Third Degree") $200-300 1953
(Black vinyl.)
CHESS (1541 "Third Degree") $300-500 1953
(Red vinyl.)
CHESS (1552 "That's When I Miss You") $200-300 1953

Bo Diddley
CHECKER (819 "Diddley Daddy") $100-150 1955
(Promotional issue only.)
CHECKER (827 "Pretty Thing") $30-40 1955
CHECKER (832 "Diddy Wah Diddy") $30-40 1956
CHECKER (832 "Diddy Wah Diddy") $100-150 1956
CHECKER (1436 "Go Bo Diddley") $150-250 1959
CHECKER (2974 "Have Guitar Will Travel") $100-150 1959
CHECKER (2976 "Bo Diddley in the Spotlight") $100-150 1960
CHECKER (2977 "Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger") $100-15 1961
CHECKER (2980 "Bo Diddley Is a Lover") $100-150 1961

John Lee Hooker
CHESS (1505 "High Priced Woman") $200-30 1952
CHESS (1513 "Sugar Mama") $50-100 1952
CHESS (1562 "It's My Own Fault") $100-150 1954

Howlin' Wolf
CHESS (1528 "My Last Affair") $300-400 1953
CHESS (1557 "All Night Boogie") $500-700 1953
CHESS (1566 "Rockin' Daddy") $200-400 1954
CHESS (1575 "Baby How Long") $200-400 1954
CHESS (1584 "I'll Be Around") $100-200 1955
CHESS (1593 "Who Will BeNext") $100-200 1955
CHESS (1607 "Come to MeBaby") $100-200 1955
CHESS (1618 "Smoke StackLightning") $100-200 1956
CHESS (1434 "Moanin' in theMoonlight") $400-600 1958
CHESS (1469 "Howlin' Wolf") $300-500 1962
(Black label.)
CHESS (1469 "Howlin' Wolf") $400-600 1962
(White label. Promotional issue only.)

Howlin' Wolf - How Many More Years

Muddy Waters
CHESS (1509 "All Night Long") $400-500 1952
CHESS (1514 "Looking for My Baby") $300-400 1952
CHESS (1526 "Standing Around Crying") $300-400 1952
CHESS (1537 "She's All Right") $250-300 1953
CHESS (1542 "Who's Gonna Be Your Sweet Man") $150-200 1952
CHESS (1550 "Mad Love") $100-200 1953
CHESS (1427 "The Best of Muddy Waters") $400-600 1957
(Black label.)
CHESS (1444 "Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill") $300-500 1960
(Black label.)
CHESS (1449 "Muddy Waters at Newport 1960")$250-350 1964
(Black label.)
CHESS (1483 "Folk Singer") $200-400 1964
(Black label.)
Note: Orange and blue labels in the 1400 series are mid-'70s reissues, in the $10 to $20 range.

Willie Mabon
CHESS (1531 "I Don't Know") $40-60 1952
(Black vinyl.)
CHESS (1531 "I Don't Know") $100-150 1952
(Red vinyl.)
CHESS (1538 "I'm Mad") $40-60 1953
(Black vinyl.)
CHESS (1538 "I'm Mad") $100-150 1953
(Red vinyl.)
CHESS (1548 "You're a Fool") $40-60 1953
CHESS (1554 "I Got to Go") $40-60 1953
CHESS (1564 "Would You, Baby") $40-60 1954
CHESS (1580 "Poison Ivy") $40-60 1954
CHESS (1592 "Come On Baby") $40-60 1954
CHESS (1608 "The Seventh Son") $30-40 1955
CHESS (1627 "Knock on Wood") $30-40 1956
CHESS (1627 "Knock on Wood") $75-125 1956
(Promotional issue only.)

CHESS (1611 In My Diary") $250-275 1955
(White label. Promotional issue only.)
CHESS (1611 In My Diary") $75-100 1955
(Silver top label with chess pieces.)
CHESS (1619 "We Go Together") $30-50 1956
(Black vinyl. Silver top label with chess pieces.)
CHESS (1619 "We Go Together") $500-750 1956
(Red vinyl. Silver top label with chess pieces.)
CHESS (1430 "Look, It's the Moonglows") $200-300 1959

Classic Rock Videos

Moody Blues - Tuesday Afternoon (1970)

Madness Signs a Deal for New Album and Catalog Rerelease

Seminal rockers Madness are very busy as they approach their 30th anniversary in the music industry. The group has signed a funding deal with Power Amp Music, who will assist the band with the release of their new album “The Liberty of Norton Folgate.” Their ninth LP will be released in 2009 via their own “Lucky 7” record label.

Power Amp Music has been formed to help artists fund and navigate the new music industry landscape.

“We recognize that established artists are now demanding more innovative and efficient financing solutions and we have built a robust, flexible and cost effective platform to provide such solutions,” explained company founder Tom Bywater. “When Power Amp Music invests in an artist, the artist retains control of their rights and enjoys total transparency on their finances.”

In addition to enlisting the aid of Power Amp Music, the band has also signed on with Union Square Music, a marketing firm that will represent their recording catalog. Over time, Madness plans to reissue their entire back catalog which kicks off with the 30th anniversary edition of the band’s smash dingle and LP “One Step Beyond.”

Smashed Kurt Cobain Guitar Sells For $100,000

A smashed-up guitar that belonged to the late grunge-god Kurt Cobain has been sold to an unidentified collector for $100,000.

According to Helen Hall, a broker from the UK, it is the second-highest known price for an item of Cobain memorabilia. She also stated that the highest price that was paid for another Cobain guitar (a Mosrite Gospel Mark IV model) was $131,000 in 2006.

The guitar had belonged to punk-rocker Sluggo (yes, that’s his real name) of the Grannies and Hullabaloo. He said he acquired the smashed guitar in a trade with Cobain (for a working guitar) while Nirvana was on their first tour of the US.

The sale of the guitar was confirmed by Jacob McMurray, senior curator at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, who had the taped-up Fender Mustang guitar on display for a time.

“It’s a really cool-looking guitar because it’s smashed and held together with duct tape and Kurt Cobain wrote on it,” said McMurray. He also hoped that the buyer would allow the guitar to return to Seattle in 2010 for a Cobain exhibit that he is preparing.

“There’s not a huge amount of broken Nirvana guitars out there,” he explained, adding that most amount to nothing more than “little slivers and fragments.”

This Date In Music History-December 27


Born on this day in 1931, Scotty Moore, guitarist. He played on the first Sun Studios session with Elvis Presley and went on to a lengthy career with Presley, playing on many of his most famous recordings including "Baby Let's Play House,” "Heartbreak Hotel," "Mystery Train,” "That's All Right,” "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock.”

Mike Pinder, The Moody Blues (1941)

Mike Jones, guitar, Foreigner (1944)

Larry Byrom, guitar, Steppenwolf (1948)

Singer Karla Bonoff (1951)

Leslie Maguire -Gerry & the Pacemakers (1941)

They Are Missed:

Blues guitarist Freddie King died of heart trouble in 1976.

US singer songwriter and bandleader Hoagy Carmichael died in 1981 (age 82). Composer of “Georgia On My Mind,” “Star Dust” and “Lazy River.”

Hank Garland, a guitarist who played with Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline among others, died from a staph infection in 2004.

Dick St. John of Dick & Dee Dee died in 2003.


In 1957, 20,000 fans began lining up at 5:30 in the morning for Alan Freed's Christmas show at Brooklyn's Paramount Theatre, set to kick off at 9:00 AM. The average ticket price was $1.85.

In 1903, in New York City, the barbershop quartet favorite, "Sweet Adeline," was sung for the first time.

Jackie Wilson had his biggest hit in Great Britain in 1986 when the re-release of "Reet Petite" hit #1, almost three years after he died. The song, which first made the UK Top Ten 29 years earlier, would go on to sell over 700,000 copies.

The Supremes made the first of 20 appearances on CBS-TV's "Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964.

In 1958, Buddy Holly made his first appearance in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas since become a major star. Along with broadcasting 'live' over KLLL radio from a fruit and vegetable store, he would return to the station's studios to record "You're The One", a song that station management challenged him to write in half an hour.

The Beatles were a last minute addition to a show at the Litherland Town Hall Ballroom in Liverpool in 1960. Advertising posters were altered to read "Direct From Hamburg, The Beatles!,” causing some to believe they were a German group.

Led Zeppelin II was at #1 on the US album charts in 1969, it went on to sell over six million copies in the US.

Queen started a two-week run at #1 on the UK chart in 1975 with “A Night At The Opera” the group’s first #1 album.

"Hello, Dolly!" closed on Broadway in 1970 after a run of 2,844 performances.

John and Yoko's 'Double Fantasy' album started an eight-week run at #1 on the US chart in 1980. The single, “Just Like Starting Over” started a five-week stay at #1 on the singles chart.

In 1962, the Beatles first single "Love Me Do" reached its peak of #17 in the chart. Cynics suggest that manager Brian Epstein personally bought 10,000 copies to boost its position.

In 1963, the London Times declared that Lennon and McCartney are "The Outstanding Composers of 1963," with music critic Richard Buckle raving that they are "the greatest composers since Beethoven."

In 1989, a former chef at the Chuck Berry owned restaurant Southern Air started court proceedings against Berry alleging that the singer had installed secret video cameras in the ladies toilets. A further 200 other women also took action claiming that the recordings were used for improper sexual fetishes.