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Phil Chess, co-founder of Chicago’s Chess Records, dead at 95

Phil Chess, far right, with Leonard Chess and Leonard's son, Marshall Chess. | File photo

Phil Chess, co-founder of Chicago’s legendary Chess Records, a label credited with helping to invent rock ‘n’ roll, has died in Tucson, Arizona, at 95.

Mr. Chess and his brother Leonard Chess arrived in America as little boys, two Jewish immigrant kids from Poland. They started Chess in 1950, recording Muddy Waters, Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and other top musicians who spread the gospel of the blues. Teens in England and around the world heard the so-called “race music” Chess helped popularize, and the cross-pollination helped birth rock.

As Waters once put it, “The blues had a baby, and they named it rock ‘n’ roll.”

Chess could be described as the midwife. In 1951, the label released what some consider the first rock record: “Rocket ’88,” by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, including a young Ike Turner.

In 1977, a Chess record went to outer space. The Voyager mission carried recordings including Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”

Mr. Chess died Tuesday evening at his 30-acre ranch in Tucson, said his daughter, Pam. For decades, he kept in touch with many Chess artists, she said. “He talked to B.B. King all the time on the phone. He ran into Ramsey Lewis six or so years ago in San Diego,” she said. “He talked to Chuck Berry.”


The music scene would have been very different without him and his brother, Chicago bluesman and club owner Buddy Guy said Wednesday.

“Phil and Leonard Chess were cuttin’ the type of music nobody else was paying attention to — Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy, Jimmy Rogers, I could go on and on — and now you can take a walk down State Street today and see a portrait of Muddy that’s 10 stories tall,” Guy said. “The Chess brothers had a lot to do with that. They started Chess Records and made Chicago what it is today — the blues capital of the world. I’ll always be grateful for that.”

“They were a great team,” said Chicago jazz legend Ramsey Lewis, who had some of his first hits with Chess.

Roger Ebert, the late Chicago Sun-Times film critic and blogger, once summarized the power and influence of Chess this way: “The former studios of Chess Records on South Michigan in Chicago are as important to the development of rock ‘n’ roll as the Sun Records in Memphis. You could make a good case, in fact, that without Chess there might have been no Sun, and without Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, there might have been no Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis or Carl Perkins. Rock ‘n’ roll flowed directly, sometimes almost note by note, from rhythm and blues.” Ebert was writing about the 2010 film “Who do You Love,” which told the improbable genesis story of Chess, or “how two Jewish immigrant kids from Poland sold the family junkyard to start a music club on the black South Side and helped launch the musical styles that have influenced everything since.”

Phil Chess (left) and Leonard Chess,  founders of Chicago's Chess Records. | Sun-Times file photo

Phil Chess (left) and Leonard Chess, founders of Chicago’s Chess Records. | Sun-Times file photo

The Chess Records story also was dramatized in the 2008 movie “Cadillac Records,” featuring Beyonce, Adrien Brody, Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright.

Before founding the label, the Chess brothers owned the Macomba Lounge at 39th and Cottage Grove, said Phil Chess’ son, Terry. When one of the club’s performers was asked by someone else to record their music, “My father and my uncle looked at each other and said, ‘Why don’t we do it?’ ” Terry Chess said.

Neither played an instrument or knew much about music. “The Chess Brothers didn’t literally make the music in the studio, but they got it out the door and reaped the rewards,” Nadine Cohodas wrote in a book about Chess, “Spinning Blues Into Gold.”

Blues and R&B classics poured out of Chess, performed by countless artists who put their own spin on the songs. While at Chess, Willie Dixon wrote “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man” for Waters, as well as “You Need Love.”

Also at Chess, Dixon wrote “Wang Dang Doodle” for Koko Taylor. Howlin’ Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster” was recorded at Chess. In 1969, Fleetwood Mac cut a double LP there, “Fleetwood Mac in Chicago,” featuring Dixon, Guy, Otis Spann, Honeyboy Edwards and “Shakey” Horton.


The Rolling Stones made an early pilgrimage to Chess and used the studio’s address for the name of a 1965 instrumental, “2120 S. Michigan Avenue.”

“Chess had some of the best recording studios,” said V103 deejay Herb Kent, who called Phil Chess as a mentor who helped him understand the music business. “Their echo chamber was one of the best in the world, so good, the Rolling Stones would come to Chicago, right at 22nd and Michigan, to record.”

The building was designated a Chicago city landmark in 1990.

Phil Chess would downplay his contributions to music, once saying, “I didn’t know what I was doing.”

But he used to listen intently at recording sessions, making suggestions, said Ramsey Lewis. “He’d say, ‘That was a good take, why don’t you play more ‘up here’ — and he’d hit the treble clef, the high end of the piano.”

Lewis remembers performing at the Minor Key in Detroit when he received a call from Phil Chess informing him about his first big hit, 1965’s “The In Crowd.”

“We can’t keep it in stock!” he told Lewis.

Phil Chess. | Sun-Times file photo

Phil Chess. | Sun-Times file photo

The Chess brothers also had interests in radio stations, including WVON, WNOV and WSDM, according to Mr. Chess’ daughter.

Phil Chess moved to Arizona almost 50 years ago. He enjoyed going to the racetrack there and for a time owned a thoroughbred, Indian Express, that ran in the 2003 Kentucky Derby, his daughter said.

In retirement, Mr. Chess fought his way back from a fall and brain injury, learning to walk and talk again, according to his daughter. In his final days, hospice workers were surprised at his spirit, she said.

“Every time you’d think he was going,” she said, “He’d open up his eyes and say ‘What’s up?’ ‘ Sometimes, he’d greet a caregiver with a honeyed “Hi, baby.”

He was married more than 70 years to his Marshall High School sweetheart, Sheva Jonesi, who died in April.

Mr. Chess is also survived by another son, Kevin, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A private service is planned in Tucson, relatives said. Leonard Chess died at 52 in 1969. “That’s what I’ve been telling him all week, that you’re going to see Leonard,” his daughter said.