Phil Chess, Co-Founder Of Chess Records, Dies At 95

Oct 19, 2016
Originally published on October 19, 2016 8:44 pm

Phil Chess, co-founder of the iconic Chicago blues and rock 'n' roll label Chess Records, died Wednesday in Tucson, Ariz. He was 95.

Phil and his brother, Leonard Chess, emigrated to the U.S. from Poland in 1928. Chess Records biographer Nadine Cohodas told their story to NPR in 2000.

"It was a scrappy kind of existence," Cohodas said of the Chess brothers' early years in Chicago. "Their father was very determined and he opened a junk shop, as did many other immigrants from Eastern Europe."

The Chess brothers weren't keen on that idea. They started a nightclub, then eventually got into the record business — and so, in 1950, Chess Records was born.

The Chess Records roster included Etta James, Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy and Chuck Berry — all black musicians, which wasn't always an easy sell on radio in the 1950s. Cohodas said in 2000 that running a record label in the mid-20th century required real mobility.

"The bulk of their trade was really jukeboxes and in taverns and shops and that sort of thing," Cohodas said. "You simply had to get out on the road, thousands of miles, days and days and days with your car full of records to drop off to every distributor, every disc jockey, to try to see if you could interest them in playing the music."

So Phil and Leonard Chess hit the road to get disc jockeys to play songs like "Rocket 88." That record, credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (a.k.a. Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm) is often called the first true rock 'n' roll single. Many more of the songs Chess produced and released were eventually covered by the world's biggest white rock bands — like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.

The Chess brothers ended up selling the label in 1969, and Leonard died later that year. But Phil Chess lived to see the records they put out and the artists they championed become part of music history.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A co-founder of one of rock 'n' roll's most legendary record labels died today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Phil Chess of Chess Records was 95 years old, and as NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, without Chess, the world might never have heard the music of Muddy Waters and many other famous black musicians.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: It was 1928, Chicago. Phil and his brother Leonard Chess just immigrated to the states from Poland. Here's Chess Records biographer Nadine Cohodas telling their story to NPR in 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

NADINE COHODAS: It was a scrappy kind of existence. Their father was very determined, and he opened a junk shop, as did many other immigrants from Eastern Europe.

LIMBONG: The Chess brothers were not so keen on that idea. They started a nightclub, then eventually got into the record business. And so Chess Records was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT LAST")

ETTA JAMES: (Singing) At last my love has come along.

LIMBONG: That's Etta James, a Chess Records artist. A couple other artists released by Chess - you've got Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK AND ROLL MUSIC")

CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Just let me hear some of that rock 'n' roll music any old way you choose it. It's got a backbeat. You can't lose it any old time you use it.

LIMBONG: All black musicians, which wasn't such an easy sell on the radio in the 1950s. Here's Nadine Cohodas again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COHODAS: The bulk of their trade was really jukeboxes and in taverns and shops and that sort of thing. You simply had to get out on the road thousands of miles, days and days with your car full of records to drop off to every distributer, every disc jockey to try to see if you could interest in playing the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKET 88")

JACKIE BRENSTON: (Singing) You women have heard of jalopies. You've heard the noise they make. Well, let me introduce my new Rocket 88.

LIMBONG: So they hit the road and maybe sweetened a couple deals with cash to get songs like "Rocket 88" played.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKET 88")

BRENSTON: (Singing) We'll ride in style moving all along.

LIMBONG: The song by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats is often credited with being the first true rock 'n' roll single. Many of the songs Chess released were eventually covered by the world's biggest white bands - Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles. The Chess brothers ended up selling the label in 1969, and the stuff they put out Phil Chess saw become music history. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.