For any fan of music, specifically blues and early rock and roll, Chess Records is one of the most important studios ever. From this small building at 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago came a stunning amount of music that has never been matched.
Leonard and Phil Chess were two Polish immigrants who arrived in Chicago as small boys in 1928. By the time they were young adults they already were running jazz clubs in the south side.
In the late 1940s Leonard and Phil became associated with Aristocrat Records, eventually taking ownership and changing the name to Chess Records.
From this small office they signed many of the all time greats of the blues including Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Etta James, John Lee Hooker, and most importantly – Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry.
Today the building is owned by the family of Willie Dixon, who save it from the wrecking ball and restored it into a small museum, with plans to make it into a recording studio again.
Just beyond Leonard’s office on the 1st floor is what was the shipping and receiving area, now serving as a room with a number of artifacts including this wall of masks of the greats.
As noted Bo Diddley was one of the more important signings for the label. There are numerous stories on how he received his stage name, but one prevalent one is it was adopted from the ‘Diddley Bow’, a single stringed instrument traditionally use in the rural south. One is shown in the photo below, along with a collection in tribute to Bo.
Willie Dixon was an early arrival to Chess, and a very important part of it’s life, and the survival of it’s story. As with many black blues players, Willie was born in the south and made his way to Chicago in his early 20s.
In addition to being a musician, Willie was a prolific songwriter including Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Want to Make Love to You, Little Red Rooster and Spoonful.
Even if you aren’t a blues fan, but a rock fan, you have heard these songs covered by hundreds of other bands, sometimes without them giving him credit. Willie was tireless in advocating for blues writers like himself getting their due from others who used their songs without permission.
One of his most famous was from Led Zeppelin’s Who Lotta Love which used music from Bring It On Home and lyrics from You Need Love. The courts almost always found in Willie’s favor, as they did on this one.
The best selling artist for Chess was Chuck Berry. While it was a bit out of their normal strength, and at first thought of by the Chess Brothers as ‘too country’, Chuck and Chess made a great team.
Nearly every famous song from Chuck including Johnny B Goode, Memphis, Tennessee, Roll Over Beethoven and all the others were recorded here.
We came through the front door as all the ‘normal’ guests would have, however the musicians always entered from the alley in back and headed up these stairs.
They may look like just an old stairway, but up these stairs headed the best rock and blues musicians of all time.
Upstairs in an amazingly small area are two studios. The smaller one has a collection of electronics.
Also in this space is the tribute to Muddy Waters. As we toured the facility our guide had a small bluetooth speaker he would play selections from off of his phone. It really added to the tour, and sitting in this space listening to Muddy sing and play in front of his collection was very cool.
Another important group who did a recording at Chess Records was the Rolling Stones.
In 1964 the Rolling Stones were just starting out. They had taken their name from a Muddy Waters song, as they were obsessed with American Blues. Normally the Chess Brothers would not let anyone not signed by the label record there, but the Stones were on their first American tour and managed to get the chance to record.
The material they recorded here was mostly released on an album called 12 x 5, including the only instrumental ever recorded by them – a tribute to Chess Records called ‘2120 South Michigan Avenue’, the address of Chess Records.
They have remained supporters of the history of Chess Records. On display at the museum is some original art from Ronnie Wood.
Our final stop was the main studio. From this small space all that amazing music was made!
It was an honor to sit in this simple room, in this nondescript building on the near south side of Chicago and listen to Etta James play ‘At Last’, realizing it was all recorded right here!
There are a few places in this world that I have been that go far beyond what the building is, or what is in the building, rather what happened there. To me 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago is one of those place.