I noted with interest the passing of Phil Chess earlier this week. Though I would not put too much into it, it was fitting that Chess, a fixture in the Chicago music scene for well over half a century, died the week the Cubs made it to the World Series for the first time since 1945. Phil and his older brother Leonard were the founders of Chess Records, one of the independent labels that sprung up after the Second World War to record the urban blues. The brothers started in what we’ll euphemistically call the entertainment industry when in 1938 they began operating juke joints catering to the South Side’s growing African-American community. I’m simplifying here but when their Macomba Lounge burned down in 1950 they used the insurance to fund what would become Chess. The brothers would spend the next decades recording Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Etta James and scores of others.
Chess Records Studios as seen in 2012
The story truly began during World War One. In The Warmth of Other Sons Isabel Wilkerson notes that the Chicago Defender mentioned in passing in its February 5, 1916 edition that northern railroads were facilitating the movement of African-American laborers from the South to the North to work in the munitions plants. After the war the Chess brothers were part of that other Great Migration; their father, Yasef Czyz, came to the United States from Motal, Poland (today part of Belarus) just after the Great War. He soon sent for his wife and children. By the time Leonard and Philip reached their mid-twenties the blues too had come age. Leonard in particular spent much of the early 1950s traveling not only the South but through Northern industrial hubs such as Detroit, St. Louis and Gary, Indiana–essentially anywhere within driving distance from Chicago where Africans-Americans lived, worked, and socialized–to plug the Chess catalog and scout for new talent. Phil was the quieter, younger brother who kept things running.
I have always been conflicted about the Chess Brothers and their cohorts. On the one hand there is no question that they recorded, disseminated, and thus saved an essential component of American–and today, world–culture. On the other hand their enterprise was built on a foundation of exploitation of that talent. That exploitation became only more apparent when the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and others came along and began making real money; in the 1960s those once-pesky things like contracts, copyrights and royalties went from ancillary issues to matters of serious economic consequence. One can’t argue that it is not part of the story.
The Chess family has maintained–not without merit–that while their business practices were sometimes unorthodox, they looked after their artists in their own ways. This meant things like paying for funerals and medical expenses, occasionally bailing someone out of jail, and dirty work like paying for abortions in those years prior to Roe v Wade. Let’s not kid ourselves; we’re talking about bluesmen here. It is a messy and human story from a time when America was a harder place and people did what they had to do to get along. Today the blues is securely canonized, but such was not always the case. The life and times of Phil Chess were–and still are–part of why it is so mythologized.
(image/Steve Browne & John Verkleir via Wikimedia Commons)