Phil Chess dead; co-founded seminal early rock ‘n’ roll label

Phil Chess, co-founder of a Chicago record label that amassed perhaps the most influential blues catalog of all time and launched the careers of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, has died. He was 95.

Chess died overnight in Tucson, Ariz., according to his nephew, Craig Glicken, who spoke to the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday.

Chess and his brother, Leonard, founded Chess Records in 1950, a label that not only recorded blues artists, but also the early rock `n’ roll of Chuck Berry and Etta James’ rich vocal stylings.

But it was Chess Records that helped raise Chicago to its status as the capital of blues, recalled Buddy Guy.

“Phil and Leonard Chess were cuttin’ the type of music nobody else was paying attention to — Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy, Jimmy Rogers, I could go on and on — and now you can take a walk down [Chicago’s] State Street today and see a portrait of Muddy that’s 10 stories tall,” Guy, who recorded at Chess, said Wednesday in an emailed statement. “The Chess brothers had a lot to do with that. … I’ll always be grateful for that.”

Obit Phil Chess

In this undated file photo from left, Phil Chess and Leonard Chess stand outside their Chess Records headquarters in Chicago. Leonard Chess died nearly a half-century before his brother. (Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

The brothers started out with a liquor store, then ran the Macomba Lounge nightclub and music venue and eventually got into the music recording business, though neither had ever played an instrument.

Chess Records’ first release was a Gene Ammons’ version of My Foolish Heart. Then came Muddy Waters’ Rollin’ Stone — a song so influential it became the name of the English rock band and the magazine.

Started business after serving in WWII

Phil Chess was born Fiszel Czyz in Motol, Poland, on April 5, 1921. He changed his name to Phil Chess after the family immigrated to the U.S.

Phil served in the Army for three and a half years during World War II. When he returned home, he joined his brother working the bar and later forming Chess Records.

For the next 19 years, they recorded a staggering lineup of America’s greatest blues, RB and rock ‘n’ roll musicians out of a two-story building at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue, which still stands.

They focused on everything from jazz saxophone, minimalist blues and the seeds of rock ‘n’ roll through artists like Ike Turner, whose Chess Records tune Rocket 88 is considered by some to be the first rock song.

Keith Richards called 2120 S. Michigan Ave. “hallowed ground”; it’s where the Rolling Stones in 1964 recorded It’s All Over Now, their first No. 1 hit.

“Neither played an instrument. Neither had even a bent for music,” author Nadine Cohodas wrote of the Chess brothers in her 2000 book Spinning Blues into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records. “But they were entrepreneurs, and through the indigenous sounds of America — blues and its progeny, Jazz, rock and roll, and soul — they found their fortune.”

Leonard died of a heart attack in 1969. That same year, Chess Records was sold and Phil moved to Arizona, where he worked in radio.

Leonard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and both brothers are in the Blues Hall of Fame.

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