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Chess Records was an American record label based in Chicago, Illinois. It specialized in blues, R&B, soul, gospel music, early rock and roll, and occasional jazz releases.
Run by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, the company produced and released many important singles and albums, which are now regarded as central to the rock music canon. Musician and critic Cub Koda described Chess Records as "America's greatest blues label."
The Chess Records catalogue is now owned by Universal Music Group and managed by Geffen Records.
Chess Records was based at several different locations on the south side of Chicago, Illinois, initially at two different locations on South Cottage Grove Ave. The most famous location was 2120 S. Michigan Avenue from around 1956 to 1965, immortalized by British rock group The Rolling Stones in "2120 South Michigan Avenue", an instrumental recorded at that address during their first U.S. tour in 1964; the Stones would record at Chess Studios on two more occasions. The building is now home to Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation. In the mid-60s, Chess re-located to a much larger building at 320 E. 21st. St, the label's final Chicago home.
The first release on Chess was the 78 RPM single "My Foolish Heart" b/w "Bless You" by Gene Ammons, which was released as Chess 1425 in June 1950, and became the label's biggest hit of the year.
In 1951, the Chess brothers began an association with Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service. One of the most important recordings that Phillips gave to Chess was "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats which topped Billboard magazine's R&B Records chart and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 because of its influence as a rock and roll single. One of the most important artists that came out of Memphis was Howlin' Wolf, who stayed with the label until his death.
In 1952, the brothers also started Checker Records as an alternative label for radio play (radio stations would only play a limited number of records for any one imprint). In December 1955, they launched a jazz and pop label called Marterry (a name created from the first names of Leonard and Phil's sons Marshall and Terry). This was quickly re-named Argo Records, but the name was changed again in 1965 to Cadet Records to end confusion with an older British classical music label.
In 1953, Leonard Chess and Gene Goodman set up Arc Music BMI, a publishing company that would publish songs by many rhythm and blues artists.
In the mid-50s the Chess brothers received two doo-wop groups by Alan Freed, the Coronets and the Moonglows; the former group was not very popular but the latter achieved several crossover hits including "Sincerely", which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. Several of Chess's releases gave a writing credit to Alan Freed.
During the 1950s, Leonard and Phil Chess handled most of the production. They brought in legendary producer, Ralph Bass in 1960 to handle the gospel output and some of the blues singers. Bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon was also heavily involved in organizing blues sessions for the label, and is now credited retroactively as a producer on some re-releases. During the 1960s, the company's A&R manager and chief producer for soul/R&B recordings was Roquel "Billy" Davis, who had previously worked with Motown founder Berry Gordy on songs for Jackie Wilson, Etta James, Marv Johnson and on early Motown releases.
Chess Records was also known for its regular band of session musicians who played on most of the company's Chicago soul recordings, such as drummer Maurice White and bassist Louis Satterfield, both of whom would later shape the funk group Earth, Wind, & Fire; guitarists Pete Cosey, Gerald Sims and Phil Upchurch; pianist Leonard Caston, later a producer with Motown; and organist Sonny Thompson.
The company was briefly run by Marshall Chess, son of Leonard, in his position as vice-president between January and October 1969, and then as president, following its acquisition by GRT, before he went on to found Rolling Stones Records. In 1969, the Chess brothers sold the label to General Recorded Tape (GRT) for $6.5 million. In October 1969, Leonard Chess died and by 1972, the only part of Chess Records still operating in Chicago was the recording studio, Ter-Mar Studios.
Although Chess had produced many R&B number ones and major pop hits over the years, it was in 1972 that the label finally reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with Chuck Berry's "My Ding-A-Ling", a live recording from a concert in Manchester, England. However, this became the company's 'swansong' release. GRT had moved the label to New York City, operating it as a division of Janus Records. Under GRT, Chess effectively vanished as an important force in the recording industry. In August 1975, GRT sold what remained of Chess Records to New Jersey-based All Platinum Records.
In the early 1980s, noticing that much of the Chess catalog was unavailable, Marshall Chess was able to convince Joe and Sylvia Robinson, who ran All Platinum, to re-issue the catalog themselves under his supervision (All Platinum had been licensing selected tracks out to other companies, which ultimately resulted in the disappearance of some original master tapes). The re-issued singles and LPs sold well, but by the mid-80s, All Platinum fell into financial difficulties and the Chess master recordings were acquired by MCA Records, which itself was later merged into Universal Music imprint, Geffen Records.
In February 1997, MCA started releasing eleven compilation albums for the 50th anniversary of Chess Records.
In the 2000s, Universal's limited-edition re-issue label, Hip-O Select began releasing a series of comprehensive box-sets devoted to such Chess artists as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.
Chess Records was the subject of two films produced in 2008, Cadillac Records and Who Do You Love?. In addition to the Chess brothers, both films feature portrayals of or based on Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, and Etta James. Cadillac Records was directed by Darnell Martin and features an ensemble cast including Adrien Brody, Mos Def, Beyoncé Knowles and Jeffrey Wright. Who Do You Love was directed by Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks and stars Alessandro Nivola playing Leonard Chess "as a complicated, driven man, hard on both his musicians and his family, yet with a real love for some of America's greatest music." The latter film's world premiere was at the Toronto International Film Festival, September 11, 2008.
In 1962, Leonard and Phil were sued by Peacock Records. The suit accused the Chess brothers of recording the Reverend Robert Ballinger, who was under contact with Peacock, for making an LP of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, who were also under contract with Peacock, and for publishing songs by two of the Five Blind Boys with Arc Music.
In the 1990s, MCA Records won several lawsuits against Charly Records because Charly had been illegally selling CDs which contained copyrighted-material by Chess artists without MCA's consent. The first lawsuit took place in the United States district court with MCA being awarded $8.4 million. Charly then challenged the verdict and the lawsuit was taken to a court in England. The English court awarded MCA $662,000. Charly appealed to the ruling again and the lawsuit was taken to the Supreme Court of the United States, who dismissed the appeal.