Tributes have been flowing since news surfaced on Tuesday that Phil Chess, a co-founder of Chess Records, is dead.
Chess, 95, died Tuesday at his ranch in Tucson, Arizona where he has been living for the past 50 years, his daughter Pam told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Phil Chess and his brother Leonard Chess started the fabled Chess Records, which produced some legendary artists including Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Ella James, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, and Little Walter. The label is also credited with releasing the first rock song, “Rocket ’88” by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats.
Phil Chess’ death comes nearly over four decades after the death of this brother. Leonard Chess died from a heart attack a few months after Chess Records was sold to General Recorded Tape for about $6.5 million in 1969, according to the Huffington Post.
A few years after Leonard’s death, Phil retired and moved to Arizona, where he was living until his death.
The Chess brothers were born in Poland to Jewish parents. Their names were changed after their family moved to the United States in 1928. Phil Chess used to be named Fiszel Czyż, and Leonard Chess was Lejzor Shmuel Czyż.
The Chess brothers reportedly got into music after choosing to record some of the artists who played in their nightclub, the Macomba Lounge, on South Cottage Grove in the late 1940s. The brothers bought the club after getting out of the Army. Although the neighborhood was rife with drugs and prostitution, the upscale Macomba Lounge soon made a name for itself as a place to hear jazz and blues music.
After the Macomba Lounge burned down in 1950, the Chess brothers focused on music. They bought into Aristocrat Records, which had signed several of the musicians who performed at the Macomba Lounge. They later bought the company and renamed it Chess Records.
During the 19 years of its existence, Chess Records produced some timeless blues, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll classics that have had a deep influence on the course of American and world music. Some of the songs produced by Chess Records include Muddy Waters’ “Rollin Stone” (which was the inspiration for the name of the English rock band Rolling Stones) and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” (which was included in the Voyager Golden Record, which was taken to space). Chess Records released many other equally influential songs.
Some of the other artists that were signed to the company include Koko Taylor, Ike Turner, Mitty Collier, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Memphis Slim, Eddie Boyd, Doctor Ross, the Moonglows, the Flamingos, and many others.
Despite the success of Chess Records, there have been some accusations over the years that the Chess brothers failed to pay their artists properly.
The contributions of Phil and Leonard to the music world through Chess Records have been well recognized. The Rolling Stones immortalized Chess Records by releasing a song named after the address of the label “2120 South Michigan Avenue” in 1964. The Chess Records building, which now serves as a museum for the label, was designated a city landmark by Chicago authorities in 1990, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Phil Chess and his brother were both inductees to the Blues Hall of Fame in 1995. Leonard Chess was also inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
The success of Chess Records also inspired the 2008 musical biopic Cadillac Records. While the movie introduced many viewers to blues legends like Muddy Waters, it is also riddled with inconsistencies, according to the Lincoln Journal Star. One of such inconsistency is that Phil Chess was not featured in the movie.
The Chess family will reportedly hold a private funeral service for Phil.
“Phil and Leonard Chess were cutting the type of music nobody else was paying attention to…and now you can take a walk down Chicago’s State Street today and see a portrait of Muddy that’s 10 stories tall,” former Chess Records artist Buddy Guy wrote in a statement to USA Today. “The Chess brothers had a lot to do with that…I’ll always be grateful for that.”
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