Musicians such as Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters are once-in-a-lifetime talents. And it's a safe bet that if Chess Records hadn't have made those artists' music accessible to the masses, another company would have pulled the trigger.
But fortunately for Leonard Chess, the label he ran with his brother Phillip gets a great deal of credit for bringing music legends into the forefront of popular culture. It's a seemingly improbable story. But in his relatively short lifetime, Chess - who was born on this day in 1917 - made a transition from an immigrant from Europe to purveyor of groundbreaking music.
Born Lejzor Czyz in Motal, Poland, Chess and his family settled down in Chicago in the 1920s. In the 1940s, Leonard and Phillip Chess were involved in the nightclub business in the Windy City. Along the way, the two purchased a record company called Aristocrat Records.
As Jason Ankeny of Allmusic explains, the label's trajectory was forever changed thanks to legendary guitarist Muddy Waters:
Originally known for its jazz and jump blues output, Aristocrat's signature sound was irrevocably altered in the wake of the recording of "Johnson Machine Gun," the label debut from Chicago blues piano veteran Sunnyland Slim.
The session introduced the Chess brothers to Delta slide guitarist Muddy Waters, who in 1948 cut his solo debut "I Can't Be Satisfied," a landmark 78 which dictated the company's new blues aesthetic from that point forward.
Ultimately, Aristocrat Records became Chess Records. And the label began a fortunate association with Sam Phillips' Sun Records, which of course is known for helping Elvis Presley break into the music world.
One notable song that Phillips sent to Chess was "Rocket 88," a tune written by Ike Turner that is viewed as one of the first rock and roll records. Turner was also featured in Howlin' Wolf's 1959 album Moanin' in the Moonlight, including playing the piano on the tune "How Many More Years."
To be sure, Chess Record had probably accomplished enough by 1955 to cement its place in musical history. But it was that year the label was catapulted onto another level when Berry took a road trip from St. Louis to Chicago. After arriving late to one of Waters' concerts, Berry apparently asked about making a record.
Waters replied, "Yeah, Leonard Chess. Yeah, Chess Records over on Forty-seventh and Cottage." Berry went there on Monday and discovered it was a blues label where greats like Howlin' Wolf and Bo Diddley recorded. He didn't have any tapes to show, but Chess was willing to listen if he brought some back from St. Louis. So Berry went home and recorded some originals, including the would-be "Maybellene," then called "Ida May," and drove back to Chicago later that week to audition.
Much to Berry's surprise, it was that hillbilly number that caught Chess' attention. Berry was signed to Chess Records and in the summer of 1955, "Maybellene" reached #5 on the Pop Charts and #1 on the R&B Charts.