Vail music column: Chess Records company helped birth rock ’n’ roll as we know it
November 6, 2016
It is no secret that the rock world has been shaken by numerous high profile deaths in 2016. Numerous musical celebrations have been held to recognize the contributions made by David Bowie, Glen Frey and Prince. Now last week comes word of another passing that many missed, a man whose impact and influence has few peers.
Risking everything before there was even a thing called rock 'n' roll, this pioneer was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who. In fact, ask any member of those bands and they will tell you that without this man and his brother, they may not have ever existed. I speak of Fiszel Czyz.
Now before you start thinking I'm off my rocker and pulling a rather late April fool on you, let me explain. Fiszel Czyz was the birth name of Phil Chess, who passed away last week at the age of 91. Chess and his brother Leonard launched the careers of Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, just to name a few.
Those artists and the rest of the legendary stable of performers at Chess Records blasted the electronic blues to the world and, in particular, to a landmass known as the United Kingdom. There, young, impressionable musicians with names such as Richards, Lennon and Townsend inhaled anything and everything with the Chess Records logo on it.
The label, founded in a small building in Chicago which still stands as a landmark in thee city with the legendary address of 2120 Michigan Ave., was the incubator that gave us Ike Turner's "Rocket 88" — considered one of the first rock songs. Chess and his brother encouraged recent northern migrants such as Waters and Willie Dixon to plug in and turn on the world to this unique sound born of the Mississippi Delta.
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The brothers' legacy
In the entertaining 1986 film "Crossroads," the lead character, played by Ralph Macchio, is schooled by a guitar store clerk, "Don't you know Muddy Waters invented electricity?" And if such is the case, then the Chess brothers played Tesla to Waters' Edison.
The brothers' legacy of Chess and then Checker records received their own celluloid tribute in the outstanding biopic "Cadillac Records" in 2008. The film stars Beyonce as Chess recording star Etta James, and though the starring role is reserved mostly for Phil's brother, Leonard, it was indeed Phil pushing the knobs and producing the true roots of rock 'n' roll.
As Muddy Waters sings from one of his dozen Chess Records recordings, "The blues had a baby and they named it rock 'n' roll." It just so happened that the midwives of that birth were the Polish immigrant Czyz brothers who changed their name to Chess.
Chess Records' impact was officially christened in June 1964, when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards showed up at the door and asked to record an album. They subsequently released an EP called "Five By Five" that included the instrumental named after the studio's address, the band paying homage to the inspiration and influence of the blues greats that came out of Leonard and Phil's creation.
You can still pay a visit yourself to 2120 Michigan Ave., and there you will find a small, underfunded blues museum that is trying to keep the spirit of the true originators alive. It's a quaint remembrance of a giant whose passing shouldn't be such a secret.
Tom Genes is a musicologist and can be heard on air Mondays through Fridays from 6 to 10 p.m. on KZYR. Genes hails from Flossmoor, Illinois, and Edwards. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.