NEW YORK (Reuters) - Chess Records, which brought blues to white audiences in the 1950s and 60s, is one of a handful of labels identified with one musical genre - as Stax is with soul, Sun with rockabilly or Blue Note with jazz.
The Chicago-based label was founded by Polish immigrants Leonard and Phil Chess in 1950. Without it, a generation of rock musicians might never have picked up guitars.
Chess introduced them to Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and a host of blues greats who influenced the likes of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton.
But for all the cultural significance of the label that was sold in 1969, it was about growing up for Leonard Chess’ son, Marshall, He spoke to Reuters at the release of “Who Do You Love?” a film about the legendary label.
Q: You’ve worked in the recording business all your life, how did it start?
A: “I went on the road at the age of 10 with dad. I loaded trunks, swept floors and went to get coffee 20 times a day. Then I developed a love for the music and that led to me producing records. I was trained to be a record man - I worked in the pressing plant, I did it all. It became my life and was my world before it was sold.”
Q: You must have know all those great blues musicians in Chicago. What were they like?
A: ”Muddy Waters called me his white grandson. He wrote me notes to girls. There was Muddy and (Howlin’) Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson and Etta James and we had fabulous jazz too - we were a full-court black music company.
“I was a kid and all the blues artists used to talk about was sex, women and drink. ‘Are you gettin’ any yet?’ they’d ask me.”
Q: Your dad and uncle were from Poland, how did they get to know the blues?
A: “They came as kids. My grandfather owned a scrap yard. They came to Chicago with the same ideas as the poor blacks who came up from the South. They wanted to make money. They wanted a better life. They weren’t thinking about the music. The scrap place was in a black area, there was a black church across from the yard and they heard gospel music.”
Q: How did they get into the music business?
A: ”My dad was a shoe salesman and a milkman and then he ran a liquor store in the black ghetto. That led to him running a tavern with a juke box and he realized these people spent their money on women, whisky and music. Dad knew from the juke box that the people loved the music and that it could sell.
”The club burned down and he went to work for Aristocrat records whose first artist was Muddy Waters. Dad was selling records out of the back of cars. It was called race music then and few people played it on the radio.
Q: Do you remember the years after your dad started Chess?
A: ”Chess was my father’s name -- Czyz in Polish. Dad rented a studio and I was at the first recording session. Sam Phillips who had started Sun Records, was the first producer.
“It grew from 1950 to ‘55. We had Muddy Waters, the first big star, and Willie Dixon put the bands together, he was the bass player and song writer. We were selling maybe 20,000 to 30,000 copies, with royalties of 2 cents. By 1955, we were big enough to sign Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Chuck had a hit with ‘Maybeline’ and that’s when there was a cross-over and white radio stations started playing the music.”
Q: You went on to work on the Rolling Stones and other recordings, what do you miss?
A: “My uncle is still alive, he’s 90, and we both miss the laughter. Chess was fun.”
Q: What is special about the blues?
A: “It’s magical stuff. It affects the way you feel. Blues is very raw and with Muddy Waters you got it raw. Most blues lyrics describe the adjustment of men moving to Chicago from Mississippi.”
Reporting by Steve James; Editing by Patricia Reaney