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Phil Chess, Co-Founder Of Chess Records, Dies At 95

From left to right, Chess Records co-founder Phil Chess, R&B singer Etta James and record producer Ralph Bass in Chicago at Chess Records Studios in 1960.
Michael Ochs Archives
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From left to right, Chess Records co-founder Phil Chess, R&B singer Etta James and record producer Ralph Bass in Chicago at Chess Records Studios in 1960.

Phil Chess, co-founder of the iconic Chicago blues and rock 'n' roll label Chess Records, died Wednesday in Tucson, Ariz. He was 95.

Phil and his brother, Leonard Chess, emigrated to the U.S. from Poland in 1928. Chess Records biographer Nadine Cohodas told their story to NPR in 2000.

"It was a scrappy kind of existence," Cohodas said of the Chess brothers' early years in Chicago. "Their father was very determined and he opened a junk shop, as did many other immigrants from Eastern Europe."

The Chess brothers weren't keen on that idea. They started a nightclub, then eventually got into the record business — and so, in 1950, Chess Records was born.

The Chess Records roster included Etta James, Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy and Chuck Berry — all black musicians, which wasn't always an easy sell on radio in the 1950s. Cohodas said in 2000 that running a record label in the mid-20th century required real mobility.

"The bulk of their trade was really jukeboxes and in taverns and shops and that sort of thing," Cohodas said. "You simply had to get out on the road, thousands of miles, days and days and days with your car full of records to drop off to every distributor, every disc jockey, to try to see if you could interest them in playing the music."

So Phil and Leonard Chess hit the road to get disc jockeys to play songs like "Rocket 88." That record, credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (a.k.a. Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm) is often called the first true rock 'n' roll single. Many more of the songs Chess produced and released were eventually covered by the world's biggest white rock bands — like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.

The Chess brothers ended up selling the label in 1969, and Leonard died later that year. But Phil Chess lived to see the records they put out and the artists they championed become part of music history.

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Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
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