When Chess Records co-founder Phil Chess died October 18 at age 95, it was another opportunity to wax nostalgic about a fertile era of independent U.S. record companies. From the early 1950’s through the late 1960’s, the Chicago based blues label and its peer independents Atlantic, Sun, and Stax Records, produced and sold millions of recordings of some of America’s greatest roots music.
Chess Records was run by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess (Czyz) beginning 1950. They were born in Poland and immigrated with their family to the United States in the late 1920’s. In the late 1930’s Leonard and Phil had immersed themselves in Chicago black nightclub scene. In the late 1940’s, Leonard was involved in Aristocrat Records and by 1950, he had acquired complete control. He brought brother Phil into the fold and they renamed the label Chess Records.
Since its founding Chicago based Alligator Records in 1971, Bruce Iglauer has figuratively taken the baton from Chess as Chicago’s premier blues record company. From Hound Dog Taylor to Koko Taylor, Luther Allison, and Son Seals, Alligator Records has broken or expanded the careers of dozens of Chicago and other blues artists. But just a few years prior, Iglauer was a college student at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI. As a DJ on the college radio station, he played many records supplied by independent labels like Chess Records, and said he during his radio tenure, began to glean an understanding of Chess and other independent labels.
“Chess was one of the few labels that had blues LP’s” said Iglauer. “Among the first ones I got were ‘The Best of Muddy Waters,’ one of the Sonny Boy Williamson reissues, probably ‘Down And Out Blues’, Howlin Wolf, and ‘The Best of Little Walter’. And actually ‘Blues With A Feeling’ by Little Walter, which became my theme song on the radio show.”
Iglauer noted the record company also produced music other than blues.
“Chess was also the label of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley” said Iglauer. “Later I realized it was also the label of Ramsey Lewis who had hit pop-jazz instrumentals, and of vocal groups like the Moonglows.”
In the 1950’s Sun Records was making its name on the backs of rockabilly artists like Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins while Atlantic specialized in sophisticated R&B with artists including Ray Charles in the 50’s and Aretha Franklin in the 60’s. Iglauer said during that same period, the Chess brothers kept it “down and dirty” with artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
“They had a large black audience among working class people who had come from Mississippi. So Chess’s sales, at least of the blues records, would follow the Mississippi river. Their big markets were Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans. Not so much New York or Los Angeles because those cities at least tried to come across as more sophisticated” said Iglauer.
FAME Studio’s in the small Tennessee River town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama produced an outsized number of hit songs from the late 1950's through the early 1970's. And though FAME was also the studio that birthed what came to be known worldwide as “The Muscle Shoals Sound,” FAME studio founder Rick Hall has said the town itself was fairly oblivious to the quantity and quality of music being produced in that small town. Iglauer said that although Chess Records operated in a much larger town, it too operative in relative anonymity.
“Chess was recording primarily African-American artists in an extremely segregated major city that was run by a mayor that quite famously had little interest in African-American people except on Election Day” said Iglauer. “Even within the black community, traditional blues fans had been considered blue collar folks. And blues competed with gospel music for the attention of audiences. And preachers weren’t terribly fond of music that kept people out in the clubs late on Saturday night, because when the collection plate was being circulated on Sunday morning, they were probably home in bed. So gospel and jazz were considered the socially acceptable types of music in the black community.”
Iglauer founded Alligator Records in 1971 when he emptied his savings account to record his favorite band, Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers. He has said he had no idea he would soon follow Chess Brothers as the head of the most respected independent blues record label not just in Chicago, but world-wide. This was two years after Chess Records was sold to GRT, and two years after the death of Leonard Chess. Iglauer said he only met Phil Chess briefly once or twice on social occasions, so an in-depth blues or business conversation never happened between the past and present Chicago blues giants. He did say that when he moved to Chicago, he heard stories that record companies including Chess had less than transparent business relationships with their artists. He said with Alligator Records, he wanted to deal straight-up with artists.
“When I came into the business, I thought ‘boy do I NOT want people to curse me behind my back’” said Iglauer.
Does Iglauer think Chess was less than honorable when dealing with artists? He said he has "no idea," but hinted that artists on many labels during that time probably didn’t understand the finer financial side of the business.
“I know Koko Taylor, who recorded for us from 1974 until her death in 2009, had recorded for Chess in the 1960’s and had one big black radio hit, ‘Wang Dang Doodle’” said Iglauer. “And she did see royalty statements. I can’t tell you what the deal was, Koko couldn’t tell you what the deal was. A piece of paper was put in front of her and she signed it. Muddy Waters said ‘I don’t know if I got all the money I deserved, but Chess gave me a career.”
Iglauer paused briefly before finishing with “I didn’t try to be like Chess business-wise at all. I've tried to be the opposite.”