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MCA/Chess CHD4 -9340
“Even before the Macambo, when I was in the service, Leonard had a bar at 47th and Evans, The L&L Café, and he had blues guys playing there…You had to get acclimated to what was going on in the community, and blues was the thing. This was where all the blacks from the South were migrating to, and on the radio, in the bars, blues were what was popular…You know, Sunnyland Slim brought Muddy in; Muddy brought in Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, and Big Crawford and it grew from there … Leonard’s partners in Aristocrat were recording the white popular music, and that stopped when we bought them out. Besides, we didn’t know the first thing about the white stuff. I mean, ‘Get on the ball, Paul,’ what does that mean?”
– Phil Chess, 1992
* * * * *
“As a kid [going to Chess blues sessions], I wouldn’t know what they were singing about, but the emotion was so contagious, I too would feel the blues – not unhappy blues, I wouldn’t leave the room because of it. The blues sessions simply had a feeling unto themselves, as did the rock ‘n’ roll ones. And when the masters – Muddy, the Wolf, Walter – played the blues, everyone felt the blues, even a little kid.”
- Marshall Chess, 1992
Two small boys named Leonard and Philip Chez, ages eleven and six, arrived at Ellis Island on Columbus Day 1928 in the company of their mother and sister and several hundred other immigrants from their small native village near Pinsk in Poland. Sons of a carpenter father who worked the night shift in a scrap yard, the young Chez children (whose family name was Americanized to Chess shortly after their arrival) were sent to the local public schools on the South Side of Chicago. They quickly picked up their new language on the rough-and-tumble streets, and their childhood address, 1425 South Karlov Avenue, would later provide the sentimental start up catalogue number, 1425, for the first Chess Records release.
Once out of school, Phil went into the Army for World War II, though Leonard’s childhood case of polio had left him with a limp that rendered him ineligible for active service. While Phil was away, Leonard dabbled in several business ventures ranging from his father’s junkyard to a couple of bars and liquor stores. It was from these last that he made the fateful transition to nightclub owner, which would eventually result in his involvement in the Aristocrat (later Chess) record label.
After a couple of failures (“real lowlife dives,” Leonard’s son Marshall was later to remember), Leonard came into possession of his most successful nightclub, the comparatively upscale Macomba Lounge, located at 39th and Cottage Grove. Major jazz and blues stars played there, including Billy Eckstine and Ella Fitzgerald; the size of the crowds made Leonard wonder why there were so few recording possibilities in the area. With a partner, a woman named Evelyn, Leonard Chess entered the recording business in 1947 by buying into a small local label called Aristocrat Records.
At first he had no facilities of his own, so he rented studio time at Bernie Clapper’s Universal Recording Service at 20 North Wacker Drive. Some of the early Aristocrat releases, like those of Tom Archia, Jump Jackson’ Orchestra, The Five Blazes, Sherman Hayes Orchestra, and the Macomba’s house vocalist Andrew Tibbs, were more pop and jazz than blues, as Leonard was wide open and willing to record anything he though might sell. And that first tentative year of operation did produce enough sales to justify continuing the experiment, for by August 30, 1947, Billboard was running a plug for forthcoming Aristocrat released by the Dozier Boys. Leonard’s method of distributing the records was the time-honored one of that era: leaving Phil to oversee both the nightclub and recording business, he’d load up his car and drive to every radio station within a thousand miles, passing out promotional 78s, taking notes of local talent for possible future recording, and passing out something else, too; Chess Records was the only label ever to deduct payola as a legitimate business expense. In 1969, Leonard told the Chicago Tribune: “Payola was standard practice…at least I was doing it honestly. Make a deal, send ‘em a check, and at the end of the year report it [to the I.R.S.] on a 1099 form.”
It wasn’t long before blues session became a regular part of Aristocrat’s output. Black people were leaving the South in droves, heading North to Chicago and its promise of more and better-paying jobs; when they got there, they were frequently homesick, and Leonard was sure that they’d buy recordings of their “down-home” music.
I think it would be fair to say that in those early days the Aristocrat record numbering system was wildly eccentric. In the beginning they seemed to assign a different starting number to each artist, though shortly before the label was dissolved they did finally settle down to a fairly consistent 400 series.
THIS TWENTY-ONE-YEAR PERIOD in the history of Aristocrat and Chess Records was the most important era in the history of urban Chicago blues. During the years between 1947 and 1967 a musical style was born, wretched out of the Delta by Muddy Waters and his contemporaries; it grew to its astonishing and highly influential maturity, sent out musical seed pods that would land in fertile ground all over America and as far away as England, and by the end of this period was all but moribund. After Leonard Chess' death of a heart attack in 1969, the label was sold to GRT, a company that manufactured cassette tapes. Under Leonard's son Marshall Chess, GRT's version of the label tried desperately to keep up with the popular music world, and the blues sessions were scheduled further and further apart. In 1975 GRT sold the Chess catalog to All Platinum, who stopped all new recordings and turned Chess into a reissue-only label. In the early Eighties the catalog changed hands yet again, and further reissues were put out by Sugar Hill Records.
The acquisition of the complete Chess catalog by MCA in 1985 has led finally to a long overdue, careful and systematic reissue program, making the best of the Chicago blues available after a long hiatus. This, combined with the recent resurgence of interest in blues in general and Chicago blues in particular, ensures that future generations of music aficionados will have a chance to listen to and learn from the masters.
– Mary Katherine Aldin, August, 1992
“When I die, they’ll say, ‘He couldn’t play shit, but he sure made it sound good!’”
– Hound Dog Taylor
All tracks recorded in Chicago unless indicated otherwise
All Chicago recordings produced by Leonard and Phil Chess and Willie Dixon
All Memphis recordings produced by Sam Phillips; St. Louis recordings produced by Oliver Sain; ''I'd Rather Go Blind" produced by Rick Hall and staff.
"Chess Blues" produced by Andy McKaie
Associate Producer: Mary Katherine Aldin
Compiled by Mary Katherine Aldin and Andy McKaie
Digitally remastered from original Aristocrat and Chess masters and disc transfers and new disc transfers and newly mixed masters by Erick Labson, MCA Studios, North Hollywood, California. Assembled by Robert Stoughton.
"My Head Can't Rest Anymore," "Dr. Ross' Boogie," "Getting Old And Grey," "Truckin' Little Woman," and "Got My Mojo Working" transferred from original Aristocrat and Chess 78s and 45s by Steven Lasker. "Florida Hurricane" and "Memory Of Sonny Boy" transferred from original Aristocrat 78 rpms by Chris Strachwitz. "Going Down Slow" remixed from original Chess 4-track by Bill Inglot with John Strother, Penguin Studios, Eagle Rock, California. "The Shakedown" remixed from original Chess 4-track by John Strother and Andy McKaie, Penguin Studios
Art Direction: Vartan Design: Michael Diehl
Photography: Marcus Tate: Suitcase, Record Sleeve, Booklet Cover; CBC TV Photo: 13, 20-21, 44; Ray Flerlage, courtesy Michael Ochs Archives: 14; Doug Fulton: 35; Hooks Bros., courtesy Michael Ochs Archives/Memphis Music and Blues Museum: 25 (Memphis Minnie), 61; Brian Smith: 18 (both), 23, 26, 38, 46, 47, 49, 56; Jim O'Neal: 59; John Rockwood: 40-41; Valerie Wilmer: 2, 22, 25 (John Lee Hooker), 52 (Albert King)
Ads (pages 24, 62): from History of Rhythm and Blues, Volume 2, 1952, compiled and edited by Galen Gart .
Photo Courtesies: Mary Katherine Aldin: 12, 32 (Henry Gray), 45, 58; LaMarr Chatman/Jim O'Neal: 30; Marshall and Phil Chess: 8; Manny Greenhill: 13, 20-21, 44; Big Jim Gregory, Mike Rowe and Jim O'Neal: 52; Michael Ochs Archives: 31 (both), 43, 48, 51; Jim O'Neal: 10;'Jim O'Neal/Living Blues: 54; Snooky Pryor/Jim O'Neal: 19; Richie Reicheg: 11, 37
Remainder of photos from the Chess files
Recording dates and personnel culled from: Chess Blues: A Discography of the Blues Artists on the Chess Labels 1947-1975 by Les Fancourt; The Chess Labels – A Discography, Vols. One and Two by Michel Ruppli; Blues Records, Volumes One and Two by Mike Leadbitter and Neil Slaven; original tape boxes and sessions annotations; and the Chess files.
This compilation is dedicated to the memory of Willie James Dixon, 1915-1992.
Special acknowledgement to the late Chess engineer Ron Malo (I935 to 1992) who passed shortly after his interview for this set.
Special thanks to Phil Chess.
Thanks to: Josh Aldin, Tom Ball, Bruce Bastin, Keith Briggs, Marshall Chess, Marie Dixon, Lowell Fulson, Manny Greenhill, Peter Grendysa, Buddy Guy, Barry Hansen, Jeffrey Hersh, John Lee Hooker, Cilla Huggins, Mark A. Humphrey, Bruce Iglauer, Bill Inglot, Zaven Jambazian, Mike Kappus, Bruce Resnikoff, Barbara Kauffman, Dick La Palm, Steven Lasker, Donna Malo, Jim O'Neal, Frank Scott. Neil Slaven, Chris Strachwitz, John Strother, and Randy Aronson and everybody in the MCA vault.
CHD/C 4-9340 © (P) 1992 MCA Records, Inc. Universal City, California 91608 USA
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