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Phil Chess, Co-Founder of Chicago’s Influential Chess Records, Dies at 95

Variety Staff

Phil Chess, the co-founder of the influential Chicago record label that was home to Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Willie Dixon, Howling’ Wolf and many other blues and R&B heavyweights, has died. He was 95.

Chess died Tuesday night at his home in Tucson, Ariz., the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Phil Chess and his brother, Leonard, founded Chess Records in 1950. The label’s hits helped popularize blues greats such as Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and pave the way for the rock ‘n’ roll era with Chuck Berry’s string of hits including “Maybellene,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

The uptempo “Rocket 88,” by singer Jackie Brenston, released by Chess in 1951, is often cited as the first rock ‘n’ roll single.

Other artists who recorded for Chess included B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley, Koko Taylor, Little Walter, Ramsey Lewis and Sonny Boy Williamson.

Chess recordings influenced virtually every rock musician to follow in Berry’s duck-walking footsteps. The Rolling Stones in 1965 recorded an instrumental tribute named for the address of the label on Chicago’s South Side: “2120 S. Michigan Avenue.”

The Chess brothers immigrated with their parents from Poland as children. Neither of the two played an instrument but together they had golden ears for talent. Many of Chess’ top artists came from the South, integrating country and blues influences into music that proved to have crossover appeal among record buyers.

Before launching the label, the brothers ran a Chicago nightclub, the Macomba Lounge. They moved into the recording business when some of the club’s most popular performers began getting offers amid the vibrant post-war music scene in Chicago.

The Chess Records story was fictionalized in the 2008 movie “Cadillac Records.” Leonard Chess died at age 52 in 1969.

The Chess catalog at present is owned by Universal Music Group.

Chess’ survivors include two sons, a daughter and four grandchildren.

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