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In his autobiography, Life, Keith Richards described the day he met Mick Jagger on a train station platform in 1961. What he noticed first were the records young Jagger was carrying. "Did we hit it off?" Richards wrote. "You get in a carriage with a guy that's got Rockin' At The Hops by Chuck Berry on Chess Records, and The Best Of Muddy Waters also under his arm, you are gonna hit it off. He's got Henry Morgan's treasure."
To the rest of the world, that was what the music recorded in Chicago at 2120 South Michigan Avenue and released on the Chess label became — precious, hidden riches. But to Polish immigrants Leonard and Phil Chess, the company hardly started out looking to change the world.
Chess Records began when their liquor store did well enough to bankroll a nightclub, which led to recording some local musicians on a label initially called Aristocrat. A few jazz singles didn't sell, so they gave a shot to a blues singer who had made the journey up north from Mississippi, figuring some of the other Southern transplants might be eager for a down-home sound.
That singer's name was Muddy Waters; his breakthrough hit, 1948's "I Can't Be Satisfied," sold out in a matter of hours. Aristocrat was soon renamed Chess Records, and what would be called "America's greatest blues label" was off and running, creating a foundation for a global music revolution.
The Chess roster is almost impossible to believe: Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Buddy Guy, Etta James, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson. An affiliation with Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service delivered Howlin' Wolf to the label, as well as Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats' 1951 classic "Rocket 88," often considered the first rock and roll record. Chess also recorded such doo-wop legends as the Moonglows and the Flamingos, and in the '60s, developed a more soul-oriented roster, including Fontella Bass, Little Milton and the Dells.
Marshall Chess, Leonard's son, said that the different musical styles the label recorded reflected the difference in the brothers: "Phil was more sensitive, and produced the doo-wop records. My father was in there with Muddy Waters and Etta James." The Chess brothers themselves, with no musical background, may have just been going by their gut, but it led to some inspired decisions (including Leonard jumping behind the bass drum on Waters' "She Moves Me" when he wasn't satisfied with the rhythm). The results were magnificent, a perfect blend of raw passion and studio structure — and a straight line to the Rolling Stones, to Led Zeppelin, to Aerosmith, to Jack White.
"You want to know what made Muddy popular?" the pianist Sunnyland Slim once said. "Leonard Chess pushed him."
(Alan Light is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Rolling Stone, a former editor in chief for Vibe and Spin magazines, and the author of The Holy Or The Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley And The Unlikely Ascent Of Hallelujah.)
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