Born Lejzor Shmuel Czyz, 12 March 1917, Motal, Poland (now Belarus)
"Leonard Chess didn't know nothing about no blues" is a quote from blues legend and Chess recording artist Muddy Waters. It may be true that Chess was primarily a businessman with little musical knowledge, but he certainly had a feel for Afro-American music, especially in terms of what would sell. The Chess label has become practically synonymous with Chicago (electric) blues and played a pivotal role in the development of American music.
Leonard Chess and his younger brother Phil (born Fiszel Czyz, 1921) were Jewish immigrants from Poland who settled in Chicago in 1928. They worked their way into the liquour and nightclub business and by the mid-1940s they owned several taverns on Chicago's predominantly black South Side, venues like The Macomba Lounge which attracted jazz musicians and jump blues bands. Noting the lack of recording facilities for the artists booked into his clubs, Leonard bought into the Aristocrat label (founded and owned by Charles and Evelyn Aron) in September 1947. The most important artist to record on Aristocrat was McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, whose second Aristocrat single, "(I Feel Like) Going Home"/"I Can't Be Satisfied" was a # 11 R&B hit in September 1948. (Reportedly, the first issue sold out in 12 hours.) Soon, the success of Muddy Waters would draw a host of significant bluesmen to the label : Little Walter, Willie Dixon ("my right arm", Leonard called him), Howlin' Wolf (via Sam Phillips), Willie Mabon, Lowell Fulson, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson and many others. In 1950, Leonard brought his brother Phil into the operation and they became the sole owners of the company, having purchased the interests of the Arons. The label was renamed Chess Records on June 3 and the first release on Chess was the sax instrumental "My Foolish Heart" by Gene Ammons (Chess 1425, a # 9 R&B hit). The Checker subsidiary was added in 1952, Argo in 1956, the latter primarily a jazz label with many album releases.
A crucial element in the rise of the independent record men was payola : paying deejays for playing their records. It wasn't illegal until 1959 and the Chess brothers were not shy of handing out envelopes, along with promotion copies of their latest releases. Chess received considerable help from Alan Freed (later the principal victim of the payola hearings), who got into the action by being credited as co-writer of the Moonglows' "Sincerely" and Chuck Berry's "Maybellene".
Chess's greatest years were the mid-fifties, when the R&B charts were dominated by Muddy, Wolf, Walter, Willie Mabon, the Moonglows, etc. Chuck Berry (Leonard's most important discovery), Bo Diddley and Dale Hawkins crossed over to the pop charts and had a huge influence on rock 'n' roll (and later on the British beat boom of the 1960s). The Chess group of labels never had a # 1 pop hit, but over a dozen # 1 R&B hits. By the late fifties Chess had dropped all blues acts except for the biggest and entered the sixties with Etta James, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Koko Taylor, Sugarpie DeSanto, Fontella Bass and others.
There is much debate regarding the Chesses as actual record producers. In his autobiography, Willie Dixon tends to minimize the contributions of Leonard as a producer, indicating that his main contribution was to rile up the musicians in the studio with a string of friendly curses and then leave them to take out their frustrations on the music. (Leonard was notoriously crude, answering the phone with a "Hello, motherfucker"). However, the ability to bring out the best from musicians is one of the very definitions of producer. It was in Dixon's interest to play down Leonard's output because Dixon was also a producer and writer with the company and felt unappreciated by the Chesses, especially financially. Starting in the late 1950s, outside producers were brought in, first Ralph Bass (formerly with King Records), a little later also Billy Davis, who had worked with Berry Gordy.
In 1963 Leonard Chess bought the Black radio station WVON in Chicago (and turned it into a hugely succesful operation) and in 1968 WFOX in Milwaukee, which was renamed WNOV.
Shortly before Leonard's death (of a heart attack) in 1969, Chess Records was sold to GRT (General Recorded Tape), America's second-biggest tape company. Alas, for GRT, Chess was ultimately more trouble than it was worth. In 1970, Chess Records, which had become little more than a name, was moved from Chicago to New York. Within a year, it was bankrupt. Contracts were cancelled, employees let go, artists released. The catalogue was sold. In 1985 MCA Records acquired the entire Chess catalogue, and by 1986, an organized and increasingly ambitious reissue program began. Leonard Chess was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 (in the category "non-performers").
In October 1999 the old Chess studio at 2120 South Michigan Avenue was given a special landmark status as part of the Clinton Administration's "Save America's Treasures" program and is now a tourist attraction. The Chess catalogue is now owned by the Universal Music Group and managed by Geffen Records.
In 2008, Chess was the subject of two feature films: "Cadillac Records" and "Who Do You Love" , with respectively Adrien Brody and Alessandro Nivola in the role of Leonard Chess.
Along with Sam Phillips (Sun) and Ahmet Ertegun (Atlantic), Leonard Chess was the consummate independent record man. John Broven writes : "Leonard Chess set new standards for the industry in artist development, deal making, networking and marketing and promotion and in his surreal sharpness". (Book "Record Makers and Breakers", 2009, page 116.) A total workaholic, Chess burned himself out at the tragically young age of fifty-two. His son Marshall has kept the Chess flame burning as CEO of Arc Music, the family publishing company and one of the largest independent publishers anywhere.
Websites about the Chess label :
There are several book-length histories of the Chess labels. The best is : Nadine Cohodas, Spinning Blues Into Gold : Chess Records, the Label That Launched the Blues. London : Aurum Press, 2001 (US edition St. Martin's Press, 2000). 358 pages.
Also useful is :
Acknowledgements : Nadine Cohodas, John Broven, Bill Millar, Eric Olsen.
Selected CD's :
Dik October 2011
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