Phil Chess, co-founder with his brother Leonard of legendary record label Chess Records, has died at his 30-acre ranch in Tucson, Arizona, at the age of 95, according to his daughter Pam, quoted by the Chicago Sun Times. Nephew Craig Glicken told the paper his uncle had been in good health.
Chess, born Fiszel Czy?, and brother Leonard – who died in 1969 at 52 – were Jewish immigrants from Poland who arrived in America in 1928 with their parents and moved to Chicago. After running a club, the Macumba Lounge, they started Chess in 1950 aiming to reflect the burgeoning local blues scene. The first release on the label was the 78 rpm single My Foolish Heart by jazz saxophonist Gene Ammons in June 1950.
Chess Records played a major role in exposing Chicago's new blues movement. It was also instrumental in putting rock 'n' roll on the map with 1951's Rocket ’88 by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, featuring a young Ike Turner. Artists who recorded for Chess Records include Muddy Waters, Etta James, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, who cut Johnny B. Goode for the label, among other singles.
The imprint had a major impact on many British musicians – such as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page – who were inspired by the likes of Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Fleetwood Mac recorded 1969's Fleetwood Mac In Chicago at Chess studios. The Rolling Stones used twice the Chess facilities and paid tribute to the studio with 1965 instrumental, 2120 S. Michigan Avenue.
The Chess brothers sold the label in 1969 to GRT for $6.5 million. After running Chicago radio station WVON, Phil Chess retired in 1972 and settled in Arizona. Even if he wasn't active any more he continued to be in contact with artists. “He talked to B.B. King all the time on the phone. He ran into Ramsey Lewis six or so years ago in San Diego,” said his daughter. “He talked to Chuck Berry.
Chicago bluesman and club owner Buddy Guy paid tribute to the Chess brothers in the Chicago Sun Times. “Phil and Leonard Chess were cuttin’ the type of music nobody else was paying attention to - Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy, Jimmy Rogers, I could go on and on - and now you can take a walk down State Street today and see a portrait of Muddy that’s 10 stories tall,” Guy said. “The Chess brothers had a lot to do with that. They started Chess Records and made Chicago what it is today — the blues capital of the world. I’ll always be grateful for that.”