Phil Chess, the man who co-founded one of the most important labels of the first half of the rock era, Chess Records, died last night in his home in Tuscon, AZ at the age of 95.
Phil was born Fiszel Czyż in the Jewish section of Częstochowa, Poland on March 27, 1921. At the age of 7, his family moved to Chicago where they changed their last name to Chess with Fiszel taking on Phil and his brother Lejzor becoming Leonard.
After a stint in the armed forces, Phil joined his older brother Leonard in running the club the Macomba Lounge. Leonard left the business in 1947 and bought into Aristocrat Records, bringing his brother Phil over with him in 1950. Later that year, with new partner Evelyn Aron, they changed the company’s name to Chess Records.
In June of 1950, the released the first Chess single, My Foolish Heart by Gene Ammons but it was a new association in 1951 with Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service that brought them their first big hit, Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston. Considered by many to be the first rock and roll single, the song topped the Billboard R&B chart.
During this same time, they also brought Howlin’ Wolf to the label where he would stay for the next two-plus decades and started additional imprints including Checker and Marterry Records, which later became Argo and, later, Cadet Records.
Over the history of the label, Chess recorded some of the greatest blues, R&B and rock artists in history including Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Little Walter, Dale Hawkins, the Moonglows, Bo Diddley, the Flamingos, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, Billy Stewart, Buddy Guy, Little Milton and many more. They were also the home for the comedy recordings of Pigmeat Markham and Moms Mabley.
Starting in the late-50’s, the Chess family of labels continued to branch out into jazz, religious and gospel recordings.
After almost two decades of success, the Chess brothers sold the label to GRT in 1969 and shortly after, Leonard died. With other major creative talents leaving the label, it started to go into decline. They did manage one last major hit, the Chuck Berry novelty recording My Ding-a-Ling but, by 1975, the remains were sold off to All Platinum, run by Joe and Sylvia Robinson, for reissues.
Phil retired from the business in 1972 and moved to Arizona. Since that time, the importance of the label has been acknowledged numerous times including induction into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1995. He was also given the Recording Academy’s Trustees Award in 2013.
During his later years, Phil suffered a traumatic brain injury after a fall but fought his way back, learning to walk and talk again.
Phil Chess was married for 70 years to his wife, Sheva, who died in April.
Among Chess Records most influential recordings:
Rocket 88 – Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats
Smokestack Lightnin’ – Howlin’ Wolf
How Many More Years – Howlin’ Wolf
I’m Your Hoochie Cooche Man – Muddy Waters
Mannish Boy – Muddy Waters
Forty Days and Forty Nights – Muddy Waters
Reconsider Baby – Lowell Fulson
Sincerely – Moonglows
My Babe – Little Walter
Ain’t Got No Home – Clarence “Frogman” Henry
Bo Diddley – Bo Diddley
I’m a Man – Bo Diddley
Maybelline – Chuck Berry
Sweet Little Sixteen – Chuck Berry
Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry
Roll Over Beethoven – Chuck Berry
Susie-Q – Dale Hawkins
At Last – Etta James
I’d Rather Go Blind – Etta James
High Heel Sneakers – Tommy Tucker
Rescue Me – Fontella Bass
The In Crowd – Ramsey Lewis