Phil Chess, Co-Founder Of Chess Records, Dies At 95 With his brother Leonard, Chess championed iconic blues and rock 'n' roll artists like Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Etta James. He died Wednesday.

Phil Chess, Co-Founder Of Chess Records, Dies At 95

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/498579284/498582270" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A co-founder of one of rock 'n' roll's most legendary record labels died today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Phil Chess of Chess Records was 95 years old, and as NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, without Chess, the world might never have heard the music of Muddy Waters and many other famous black musicians.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: It was 1928, Chicago. Phil and his brother Leonard Chess just immigrated to the states from Poland. Here's Chess Records biographer Nadine Cohodas telling their story to NPR in 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

NADINE COHODAS: It was a scrappy kind of existence. Their father was very determined, and he opened a junk shop, as did many other immigrants from Eastern Europe.

LIMBONG: The Chess brothers were not so keen on that idea. They started a nightclub, then eventually got into the record business. And so Chess Records was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT LAST")

ETTA JAMES: (Singing) At last my love has come along.

LIMBONG: That's Etta James, a Chess Records artist. A couple other artists released by Chess - you've got Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK AND ROLL MUSIC")

CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Just let me hear some of that rock 'n' roll music any old way you choose it. It's got a backbeat. You can't lose it any old time you use it.

LIMBONG: All black musicians, which wasn't such an easy sell on the radio in the 1950s. Here's Nadine Cohodas again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COHODAS: The bulk of their trade was really jukeboxes and in taverns and shops and that sort of thing. You simply had to get out on the road thousands of miles, days and days with your car full of records to drop off to every distributer, every disc jockey to try to see if you could interest in playing the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKET 88")

JACKIE BRENSTON: (Singing) You women have heard of jalopies. You've heard the noise they make. Well, let me introduce my new Rocket 88.

LIMBONG: So they hit the road and maybe sweetened a couple deals with cash to get songs like "Rocket 88" played.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKET 88")

BRENSTON: (Singing) We'll ride in style moving all along.

LIMBONG: The song by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats is often credited with being the first true rock 'n' roll single. Many of the songs Chess released were eventually covered by the world's biggest white bands - Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles. The Chess brothers ended up selling the label in 1969, and the stuff they put out Phil Chess saw become music history. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.