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


And let's remember a man who brought blues to music fans across the country. Phil Chess has died at age 95. He co-founded Chess Records, the Chicago label that was home to Etta James and Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. NPR's Cheryl Corley has more.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Phil Chess and his brother, Leonard, started out running a liquor store then a nightclub and eventually got into the record business. By 1950, their namesake company had become the label for urban blues.


MUDDY WATERS: (Singing) Well, I'm going away to leave, won't be back no more.

CORLEY: Two decades ago, Phil Chess told public TV station WGBH then in the studio, the brothers would catch the blues as it came.


PHIL CHESS: We have the machine going, then later and we would put in the drums and then sax or guitars, whatever it took.

CORLEY: The relationship between Phil Chess, his brother, Leonard, and the musicians was born out of their background as immigrants from Poland as Nadine Cohodas, author of a book about Chess Records told NPR in 2000.


NADINE COHODAS: They were outsiders coming from the East to the West. And here were the migrants from Mississippi and Alabama, South coming North.

CORLEY: Helping turn the delta blues into the amplified Chicago sound and turning out classics like this one from Etta James.


ETTA JAMES: (Singing) I don't want you to be no slave. I don't want you to work all day.

CORLEY: The most famous location of the former Chess Studios is at 2120 South Michigan Avenue on Chicago's Near South Side. The building is now a Chicago landmark and home to blues' great Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation. Dixon's grandson Keith Nelson is the general manager.

KEITH NELSON: We're in Phil Chess' office.

CORLEY: Nelson says the Chess brothers would do whatever it took to get their music out there.

NELSON: Phil and Leonard would both actually drive records to different states.

CORLEY: Helping to make Chicago the blues capital of the world while some of their musicians became the godfathers of rock 'n' roll.

NELSON: Bo Diddley who laid the groundwork and then Chuck Berry who built the house.


CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Maybellene, why can't you be true?

CORLEY: During the WGBH interview, Phil Chess' nephew, Marshall, who took up the family business said his uncle and father played a crucial role.

MARSHALL CHESS: They helped develop the sound of Chicago Blues. Everyone came to Chess, man.

CORLEY: The Chess brothers sold the label in 1969, the year Leonard died. Phil Chess died Tuesday.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.


MUDDY WATERS: (Singing) Well, I wish I was a catfish swimming in the deep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.
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