NPR logo Rock 'n' Roll Summer School: Chess Records

Rock 'n' Roll Summer School: Chess Records

Every Wednesday this summer, we're offering a quick course in early rock 'n' roll. Your professor will be Tom Moon, NPR contributor and author of the book 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. These overviews, mostly from the 1950s, are not intended to be comprehensive, but to help curious listeners dive in and explore some of the genre's often-overlooked building blocks. Whether you're a novice or a rock snob, join the conversation below...

THIS WEEK: The Proto-Rock Blues Titans of Chess Records

Of the semi-sacred locations where rock and roll first erupted, two stand out: Producer Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service, where Elvis Presley's voice was first captured on tape; and the Chicago-based Chess Records, home of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and a superheated brand of urban blues that amounts to the rhythmic "source code" for rock and roll.

The two spots are linked: Phillips recorded Howlin' Wolf's first single at his storefront studio, and then, because he didn't yet have his own label, licensed it to Chess in 1951. Here's Wolf's signature "How Many More Years."


Chess quickly became a magnet for talent. On Muddy Waters' advice, guitarist, singer and songwriter Chuck Berry visited the label in 1955; he was promptly signed, and his rockabilly-influenced original "Maybellene," powered by an insanely infectious rhythm guitar riff, became a hit the same year.


The musicians of Chess were experts at updating and recasting the blues - one of the most infectious examples is guitarist Bo Diddley's two-bar chank-chank-chank, a-chank chank rhythm, which serves as the foundation for Bruce Springsteen's "She's the One" and countless other classics. It's still the blues, amped up a notch.


Howlin' Wolf: "Moanin' In the Moonlight."
Muddy Waters: "Hoochie Coochie Man."
Chuck Berry: "Maybellene."
Bo Diddley: "Hey Bo Diddley."

Willie Dixon: "Walking The Blues"
Little Walter: "Mean Old World"

Besides 12-bar blues form, what other musical elements connect the Chess artists with the early rock revolution? Is it possible to trace a line from Chuck Berry to Bill Haley to the Rolling Stones? Do you hear similarities in terms of electric guitar tone, for example?

Chuck Berry was versed in the blues (many of his early B sides are magnificent slow blues tunes) but wrote a handful of the great early rock classics, including "Johnny B. Goode." Think he was listening to the work of artists associated with rock?

Much has been written concerning Led Zeppelin's reappropriation of Willie Dixon's "You Need Love" as "Whole Lotta Love." Is this creative derivation, or outright stealing?