(Bo Diddley and Phil Chess)
It was an odd coincidence that the day that the world celebrated Chuck Berry’s 90th birthday—Oct. 18—was the same day that Phil Chess, the co-founder with his late brother Leonard of Berry’s historic Chicago label Chess Records—died at 95.
“Phil Chess was a pioneering music industry executive who helped make Chicago the Blues Capital of the World,” said the Recording Academy’s president/CEO Neil Portnow in a statement. “With his brother Leonard, he co-founded the legendary Chess Records, and signed historically significant artists including Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, Etta James, Muddy Waters, and many more.”
Indeed, the significance of Chess cannot be overstated.
“For someone interested in the blues there was no label more important than Chess—end of story,” says Corky Siegel, himself a blues legend as pianist/vocalist/harmonica player of Chicago’s Siegel-Schwall Band. “For the British Invasion, they would probably have invaded India instead of the U.S. had Chess not existed!”
Indeed, Chess Records “changed the world’s musical landscape in the postwar era in a way that remains unparalleled to this day,” says blues maven and music publicity veteran Bob Merlis, whose clients include Experience Hendix and ZZ Top, and who released blues recordings on his Memphis Internaitonal Records label.
“Phil and Leonard Chess were thought to be hardnosed businessmen in their time but, upon reflection, should be thought of as true cultural visionaries,” maintains Merlis.
“Sure, they were in it for the money but the fact is they laid the groundwork for the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, which was a truly transformative phenomenon.”
Merlis notes that when Sun Records’ Sam Phillips recorded what is now widely considered the first rock ‘n’ roll record, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, “he placed the master with Chess before he had launched Sun Records. The Chess roster of blues, R&B, rock and soul artists provided inspiration for Berry Gordy to start Motown. The Miracles, in fact, had their initial releases on Chess before Gordy started his operation.”
Hence, Phil Chess, a Polish immigrant, “somehow found himself to be one of the co-captains of the true ‘mothership’ at rock’s inception,” says Merlis. “It’s an improbable story, but we know it really happened because what took place at Chess still resonates around the world today. Somewhere on earth at any given time, somebody is playing a Muddy Waters record, a Chuck Berry riff or putting down the Bo Diddley beat. If it hadn’t been for the Chess brothers, the universe would have been that much less soulful.”
“Hail, hail, rock ’n’ roll!” concludes Merlis, quoting from the famous final verse of Berry’s 1957 Chess hit “School Days.”