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

Oct 20, 2016
Originally published on October 20, 2016 8:38 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And let's remember a man who brought blues to music fans across the country. Phil Chess has died at age 95. He co-founded Chess Records, the Chicago label that was home to Etta James and Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. NPR's Cheryl Corley has more.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Phil Chess and his brother, Leonard, started out running a liquor store then a nightclub and eventually got into the record business. By 1950, their namesake company had become the label for urban blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T BE SATISFIED")

MUDDY WATERS: (Singing) Well, I'm going away to leave, won't be back no more.

CORLEY: Two decades ago, Phil Chess told public TV station WGBH then in the studio, the brothers would catch the blues as it came.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PHIL CHESS: We have the machine going, then later and we would put in the drums and then sax or guitars, whatever it took.

CORLEY: The relationship between Phil Chess, his brother, Leonard, and the musicians was born out of their background as immigrants from Poland as Nadine Cohodas, author of a book about Chess Records told NPR in 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

NADINE COHODAS: They were outsiders coming from the East to the West. And here were the migrants from Mississippi and Alabama, South coming North.

CORLEY: Helping turn the delta blues into the amplified Chicago sound and turning out classics like this one from Etta James.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I JUST WANT TO MAKE LOVE TO YOU")

ETTA JAMES: (Singing) I don't want you to be no slave. I don't want you to work all day.

CORLEY: The most famous location of the former Chess Studios is at 2120 South Michigan Avenue on Chicago's Near South Side. The building is now a Chicago landmark and home to blues' great Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation. Dixon's grandson Keith Nelson is the general manager.

KEITH NELSON: We're in Phil Chess' office.

CORLEY: Nelson says the Chess brothers would do whatever it took to get their music out there.

NELSON: Phil and Leonard would both actually drive records to different states.

CORLEY: Helping to make Chicago the blues capital of the world while some of their musicians became the godfathers of rock 'n' roll.

NELSON: Bo Diddley who laid the groundwork and then Chuck Berry who built the house.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAYBELLENE")

CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Maybellene, why can't you be true?

CORLEY: During the WGBH interview, Phil Chess' nephew, Marshall, who took up the family business said his uncle and father played a crucial role.

MARSHALL CHESS: They helped develop the sound of Chicago Blues. Everyone came to Chess, man.

CORLEY: The Chess brothers sold the label in 1969, the year Leonard died. Phil Chess died Tuesday.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CATFISH BLUES")

MUDDY WATERS: (Singing) Well, I wish I was a catfish swimming in the deep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.