During the early fifties when Chess Records was called Aristocrat Records, Leonard Chess would travel extensively on the road in the southern states, to establish widespread distribution networks and radio contacts. He co-founded the Chess label with his brother Phil Chess in 1950 and also established a publishing company by the name of Arc Music in 1953.
Leonard was the creative and inventive force in the production of records with the legendary Willie Dixon. He worked long and hard to achieve a particular sound, using a makeshift echo technique, which became known around the world. He had a great knowledge and understanding of how to use limited space in the most creative way in the recording process, resulting in many recordings that sounded especially dynamic and exciting.
The label developed a powerful blues rock and roll roster, including Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Each artist helped to put Chicago on the map internationally as an influential entertainment centre, especially for Blues recordings. This had a tremendous impact on the careers of The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, amongst many others.
In 1951 the Chess brothers started working with Sam Phillips, who had set up the Memphis Recording Service and was looking for licensing arrangements with record companies. Sam Phillips went on to form Sun Records, where Elvis Presley made his first recordings. One of the first songs that Sam passed to Chess was “Rocket 88”, by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, which went to the top of the Billboard R & B chart. The Delta Cats were actually Ike Turner (nineteen years old at the time) and his Kings of Rhythm, and Jackie Brenton was the band’s saxophonist. Not a bad way for Chess to start putting their name on the music map.
1955 was a significant year for Chess Records because that year it had its first national hit with “Maybellene”, recorded by Chuck Berry, who then had a succession of hits, which generated a significant amount of revenue for the company. This motivated the label’s owners to sign more artists of that particular genre with great success.
In 1958, Chess began producing their first albums, initially for Blues artists such as Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Bo Diddley.
Another brilliant step by Leonard Chess was his growing interest in the soul music market which was dominated by Motown and Stax at the time. He decided, on the strength of Davis’s previous success with Berry Gordy, to offer Billy Davis Jr. a contract to develop a strong R&B division in line with Motown and Stax.
With Davis present in the creative role as producer, songwriter, A&R person and arranger at Chess Records, the opportunity arose to create a more soulful sound and move the company away from the Blues-dominated sound of the label up to that point.
Photos: Steve Browne & John Verkleir 2012 Wikimedia Commons)