Born Lazar Samuel Chez, 1917 (died October 16, 1969); Poland; immigrated to U.S., 1928; children: one son, Marshall.
Leonard Chess probably had as great an impact on modern popular music as any other man in the twentieth century. For his company, Chess Records, he produced and recorded the seminal Chicago blues acts of the 1950s, performers like Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Little Walter, and Sonny Boy Williamson, musicians who would in turn become major musical influences on the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Paul Butterfield, Fleetwood Mac. He discovered and recorded Chuck Berry, whose work as a guitarist and songwriter influenced nearly every rock and roll musician who followed in his footsteps. Along the way, Chess also recorded seminal musicians in the field of doo-wop, jazz, New Orleans music, and soul. His legacy is, in a word, astounding.
Leonard Chess was born Lazar Shmuel Chez in 1917 in Poland. In 1928, his impoverished family immigrated to the United States with Leonard and his brother Phil. They settled in a Jewish neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. As adults in the 1940s, the brothers opened a chain of taverns in the black South Side of the city. The most successful of these was the Macomba, a popular night club in the heart of the Black Belt that hosted the most popular black acts of the day, including Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, and Gene Ammons. Working the Macomba every night, Len Chess became aware of the popularity of music in the black community and the lack of companies producing records for this market.
A couple of years after the end of World War II, the Chess brothers bought into Aristocrat Records, a company owned by Evelyn Aron. Chess set to work. He seems to have been the label's Artist and Repretoire (A&R) man, scouring the city for new talent. "When I first saw Leonard Chess in 1946," piano player Lazy Bill Lucas remembered, "he had a tape recorder, no bigger than that, going around from tavern to tavern, looking for talent." The first Aristocrat records were cut in early 1947. The artists on those records played the same kind of smooth sophisticated music that could be heard at the Macomba, smooth, swinging numbers, often reminiscent of big band music, like Clarence Samuels "Lollypop Mama."
This started to change when piano player Sunnyland Slim came to record with a young guitarist from Mississippi who went by the name Muddy Waters. The two played a grittier style of blues that had its roots in the blues played in the rural South. Their first sides, Slim's "Johnson Machine Gun" and Muddy's "Little Anna Mae," were ensemble blues that hearkened back to the sparer, guitar and piano based sound of old Chicago artists like Tampa Red. They were effective, engaging blues but they did not particularly light up the night.
Not long after that first session, however, Muddy returned to the studio. This time he was accompanied only by bassist Big Crawford. The two songs that came out of that session, "I Can't Be Satisfied" and "I Feel Like Going Home" were rough and raw delta blues played through an amplifier. The sound was unlike anything that had been recorded and Len Chess didn't know what to make of it. "What the hell's he singing?" he demanded and refused to release the songs at first. His partner, Evelyn, however heard something she liked in the music and pressed Chess to give Muddy a chance. He did. The record's first press sold out the day it was released.
Chess began to hear Muddy's music with new ears. "Chess began to come close to me," Muddy later said, "because I was selling so fast they couldn't press them fast enough. Muddy was so successful, Chess refused to change the formula--he insisted that Muddy record only with Big Crawford, although by that time Muddy was playing South Side clubs with a full group. Chess used his clout in various ways to combat competition. When Baby Face Leroy's "Rollin' and Tumblin'"--on which Muddy played anonymously--looked like it was going to be a hit, Chess brought Muddy into the studio and had him record the song under his own name, effectively killing sales of the other record. He was able to control radio play of songs he felt competed with his artists. Later in the 1950s he got Billy Boy Arnold's "I Wish You Would" pulled from playlists because Chess felt it was too similar to his label's "Bo Diddley."
The label grew quickly in the wake of Muddy's phenomenal success. Len Chess was astute enough to capitalize on the new sound and recruited other "down-home" artists, like Robert Nighthawk, to Aristocrat. By 1948, the company had taken over its own distribution, and in 1950 the Chess brothers bought out Evelyn Aron's share and renamed the label Chess Records. Over the next two years, Chess began a blues renaissance as a veritable hall of fame collection of musicians joined the label, including Little Walter, Jr. Wells, Jimmy Rogers, and Baby Face Leroy. By 1953, Chess had begun to break out of Chicago and in to the national charts.
Phil Chess ran the business side of the company and concentrated on recording jazz, while Leonard looked after the blues side. With his right-hand-man Willie Dixon, he supervised all Chess recording sessions and he acquired the reputation of a ferocious perfectionist who rehearsed numbers until he was completely satisfied. "Leonard would work hard," Jimmy Rogers recalled, "sometimes he overworked! You didn't go in there too often and make numbers right away y'know--he'd be turning it around there quite a while trying to get the best you have." Chess, the Polish immigrant, even insisted on playing bass drum himself on Muddy's "She Moves Me" to get the exact sound he wanted.
When he wasn't making records, Chess made forays into the South looking for new talent. The talent he found for his record company for shorter or longer stays in the early 1950s, represents the pantheon of classic urban blues: Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), John Lee Hooker, J.B. Lenoir, Willie Mabon, Elmore James, Otis Spann, Jr. Wells, Walter Horton, Lowell Fulsom, and Willie Dixon. Chess also set up a fruitful relationship with Sam Phillips in Memphis. First an independent producer and later the owner of Sun Records, Phillips sent a number of artist Chess's way, including Rufus Thomas, Dr. Isaiah Robs, Bobby Bland, and Chester Arthur Burnett, the fabulous Howlin Wolf, who became a Chess star second only to Muddy Waters.
Another record acquired from Sun was "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and His Blues Rockers, a tune some consider the first rock and roll recording. It was Chess's first involvement in this kind of music and marked an important transition for the label. By the middle 1950s, the popularity of Chicago blues had peaked and was being eclipsed by rock and roll. Leonard Chess was not left behind thanks to two discoveries in 1955. The first, singer/guitarist Bo Diddley, made a single named after himself that turned out to be a smash hit.
Even more important was a young guitarist Muddy Waters introduced to Len Chess. One of his songs, with a country flavor, had already been rejected by both Decca and Mercury. Chess recorded it as a rock and roll tune in August 1955, retitled it "Maybelline," and Chuck Berry began his career as the biggest selling artist in Chess history, penning and recording a string of hits that stretched into the early 1970s. Ironically Chess turned down an opportunity to buy Sun Records from Sam Phillips in the early fifties or they would have had then-unknown Elvis Presley on Chess as well! In 1964, the Rolling Stones, still in the early days of their musical careers, came to Chess studios to record a tribute to the music of Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and others that had meant so much to them.
By 1960, Chess Records had seen its heyday. It continued for nearly a decade however, producing other kinds of music in addition to rock and roll and the blues that had put the label on the map: jazz, New Orleans music, rhythm & blues, and soul, by artists like Sonny Stitt, Ramsey Lewis, Clifton Chenier, Etta James and Little Milton. The last Chess blues record to chart was "Wang Dang Doodle" by Koko Taylor in 1966.
In 1969, the Chess brothers, Len and Phil, sold Chess Records to GRT. Leonard Chess died just months later, on October 16, 1969. In 1987 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
One of the Voyager spacecraft included, as representative of earth culture, Chuck Berry's song "Johnny B. Goode." The significance of that gesture was summed up by Marshall Chess, the son of Leonard Chess: "I tell my children it's amazing that your grandfather produced a record and it's representing earth to aliens. That's pretty good for immigrants from Poland."
by Gerald E. Brennan
Leonard Chess's Career
Became partner in Aristocrat Records, 1947;, with brother Phil, bought out out Aristocrat Records partners and changes label name to Chess Records, 1950; forms Checker Records subsidiary, 1952.
Leonard Chess's Awards
Inducted into Rock and Roll hall of Fame 1987
- Selected discography
- Chess Blues: 1947-1967 , Chess/MCA, 1992.
- Chess Rhythm & Roll: 1947-1967 , Chess/MCS, 1994.
- Erlewene, Michael, Vladímir Bogdana, Chris Woodstra, and Cub Koda. All Music Guide to the Blues , San Francisco: Freeman Books, 1996.
- Herzhaft, Gérard,.Encyclopedia of the Blues , 2nd edition, Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997.
- Rowe, Mike. Chicago Breakdown , New York: Da Capo, 1979.
- Independent , May 21, 1997.
- New York Beacon , June 25, 1997, July 2, 1997.
- Independent .