One of the major contributors to the development and spread of American popular music, especially electric blues and early rock and roll, was not born in America, nor a musician. Born on March 12, 1917 in Poland, Lejzor Czyz moved to Chicago with his family in 1928 where his name changed to Leonard Chess. In Chicago, Chess became involved in the nightclub scene and music business, eventually starting his own label, Chess Records, in 1950.
Chess Records is important to music history for several reasons. For starters, it is often cited as one of the first “independent labels” that competed with the big companies of the music industry. As noted by music historian John Broven, “Leonard Chess set new standards for the industry in artist development, deal making, networking, and marketing and promotion.” Running a successful record company takes more than good business skills, however. It takes good music. Luckily for us, Leonard Chess had an ear and a love for this too. Being in charge of his own label allowed for Chess to take risks on artists that major companies would not sign because they did not sound like what was popular and selling at the moment.
The music Chess loved was not being played on the radio, but on the streets of his hometown. The Chicago of his day had many newly transplanted African-American southerners playing the music of the Mississippi Delta on the street for money. To compete with the noise of the new urban environment, some traded in their acoustic guitars for new electric instruments with amplifiers. This changed the sound of their music considerably, and Leonard Chess liked what he heard. So, going against popular trends (as well as the blatant racism of the record industry), he began recording these blues artists. And one of the first musicians in his studio was McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters.
As the popularity of Chess Records grew, spreading the now world famous style of electric blues music known as “Chicago Blues”, Leonard added more artists to his label, including blue-legends-to-be Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson, Koko Taylor, and Little Walter. Refusing to get stale, Chess Records continued introducing new sounds to the public throughout the 1950s with early rock and roll virtuosos Chuck Berry and and Bo Diddley and the soulful vocals of Etta James.
This list of talent from one record label is impressive on its own, but when you also consider the influence this music had on what was to come after it, it’s hard to even conceive of what music today would be like without Leonard Chess’s vision. John Lennon often cited Chuck Berry as the reason he got into music and decided to form a rock and roll band. On their first American visit, The Rolling Stones demanded to stop at the Chess Records studio to pay homage to their musical influences (their name even comes from a Muddy Waters lyric). I could go on and on here, but these two examples alone are enough to prove my point. Try to imagine music today without The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and the many musicians they then influenced. It's almost impossible and proves just how important Leonard Chess's work was.
I only own one “box-set” of music. It’s The Chess Story 1947-75, and it includes fifteen discs that chronologically cover the recordings of Chess Records. I have since put all of it on an old mp3 player that now gets played more than my current one. I hit “shuffle” and let it go for hours, never stumbling on a bad tune. I’ve played it in the background at parties and family gatherings, and it always helps create a great mood and receives many compliments from people of all ages. Likewise, when I put it on when cooking or cleaning around the house, the tasks become far more enjoyable and feel a lot less like work. These are some of the things that good music can do, and thanks to Leonard Chess, we have a lot more good music to choose from than we would without him.
On a final note, the story of Leonard Chess and his record label was made into a movie in 2008. Cadillac Records stars Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess, and does a nice job capturing the time period and its music. If anything I referenced in this column interests you, I highly recommend it. Here's the trailer:
Check out some music from Chess Records as well as other music referenced here in my "Birthday Blips" column at http://blip.fm/PeetieWheatstraw .