Leonard & Phil Chess

10 who mined the talent and shaped the labels

Two brothers from Poland built a blues empire at 2120 Michigan Ave. on Chicago’s Southside after working in scrap metal, liquor retailing and taverns. In 1945, Leonard had a club, the Mocambo Lounge, and booked jazz players, but it was also a hangout for other musicians. With a friend he started Aristocrat Records and after a few bumpy years, bought out his partners and switched the name to Chess. One of Aristocrat’s artists was Muddy Waters, who not only became Chess’ first hitmaker, he advised Chuck Berry to sign with the label. Berry showed up with a song, “Ida Red,” that Chess told him needed new lyrics. Berry returned to the studio a week later with the same tune but new words and a new title: “Maybellene.” The Chess studio was so revered that the Rolling Sones and the Yardbirds recorded there.

Key signings: Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin Wolf, Etta James

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