Chicago Music History 101: Chess Records

Chicago Music History 101: Chess Records


2120 South Michigan Avenue, the home of Chess Records. So much of Chicago music was part of a diaspora- not just the Great Migration but Polish immigrants! Leonard and Phil Chess, Polish immigrants who came to Chicago and saw an opportunity to make money from the blues that they fell in love with. No one was taking blues seriously or recording it. The Chess brothers started out in two studios on South Cottage Grove. Eventually move to this building, this is the famous one. The Rolling Stones recorded “2120 South Michigan Avenue” a 1964 instrumental that pays homage to Chess Records. As you can see this is one of the rare buildings we’re visiting where there actually is a plaque and there’s a museum. The building’s owned now by the Willie Dixon Foundation. It’s chronically underfunded, underappreciated- the museum is not often open and when you’re able to go inside there’s not a lot there. You won’t see the original recording equipment. You’ll get a sense of the room but that’s about it. Chess had two great periods of success: in the 40s popularizing Chicago blues electric blues around the world and then in the 50s really giving birth to rock and roll. None of the three artists who were instrumental to inventing rock and roll who recorded for and at Chess Records none of them were from Chicago. They all came here from other locations. Chuck Berry such a big influence on all rock guitar, particularly Keith Richards, from St. Louis, of course. Etta James from Los Angeles. Bo Diddley from Macomb, Mississippi. “I got a brand new chimney made on top” They all came to Chicago to try to make a living playing music and they wound up recording at Chess Records. There are troubling aspect to the legacy of Chess. Not for nothing was one of the two films about the Chess brothers and Chess Records a few years ago called “Cadillac Records.” Many of the artists claimed they never got the monies due them for selling millions of records. They might have gotten a shiny new car and a “thank you.” The story, perhaps apocryphal, is when the Rolling Stones limousine on their first tour in America in 1964, when it pulled up right there, an African-American gentleman who’d been painting the walls came out and started carrying their amplifiers for them. It was Muddy Waters, one of the most successful artists Chess ever recorded and Muddy had to paint the walls to make ends meet. I’m going to set that aside. Money’s not being spent here to bring this up to the world class attraction it should be. Because geez I mean I’ve been to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum on the banks of Lake Erie. The lines that that place encounters to see ZZ Top’s furry drum set should be here and running around the block because this is the real deal.

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