Phil Chess, Chess Records co-founder, dies aged 95

The Chicago-based label released blues records which helped define rock’n’roll, proving hugely influential to musicians like the Rolling Stones

Phil Chess, co-founder of a Chicago’s Chess Records, the label that amassed the most influential blues catalogue and has been credited with helping to invent rock’n’roll, has died at home in Tuscon, Arizona. He was 95.

Nephew Craig Glicken told the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday that Chess died overnight at his 30-acre ranch and said his uncle had been in good health.

Chess and his brother, Leonard, who were both Jewish immigrants from Poland, founded Chess Records in 1950 on the Southside of Chicago. It went on to become a label that served as a launchpad for the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry and Etta James, bringing their blues sounds to the world.

The music Chess Records released was known as “race music” at the time and was rooted in rhythm and blues, a sound that would influence the likes of the Rolling Stones and lead to the emergence of rock’n’roll. The brothers released music from other giants of blues including John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon.

The blues guitarist Buddy Guy told the Sun-Times that the brothers’ impact on blues and rock’n’roll was huge and that it changed Chicago and turned it into a hotbed for the sound.

He said: “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.”

Phil Chess (whose birth name was Fiszel Czyż) was born in Poland in 1921 before his family emigrated to the US in 1928, eventually changing their name to Chess, with Phil joining his brother in the record business after a spell in the army.

The brothers started out with a liquor store, then ran a nightclub and music venue, which was known for its great R&B music, and eventually got into the music recording business, though neither had ever played an instrument.

Their label’s first release was a Gene Ammons’s version of My Foolish Heart. Then came Muddy Waters’s Rollin’ Stone, a song so influential it became the name of the British rock band and the American music magazine.

The Rolling Stones also named a track 2120 S Michigan Avenue after the headquarters of the label whose artists provided the bedrock to their early sound, and whose origin story involves a young Keith Richards approaching Mick Jagger because he spotted a couple of Chess LPs under his arm.

Staff and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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