Thanks to a man named Norman Petty the small eastern New Mexico town has a big piece of American music history. It is here that Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and others first recorded their music.
When I was planning out the road trip I discovered this, and made plans to stop by the ‘studio’. When the navigation system said we arrived it was in front of a newer building that was the Chamber of Commerce, as well as a museum. Upon entry I asked about the studio, the person at the desk said that is across town – and rarely open. Disappointed, we checked out the museum.
The museum was in the basement. After watching a video about Norman and Vi Petty, we toured their exhibits. They have a number of nice displays.
After leaving I was able to google and find the actual studio address. It was located across town, just a couple of miles away.
When we arrived I noticed the gate to the compound was open. When I walked in I tried a door to a building and to my surprise it too was unlocked. There were four people standing in the lobby and when I asked if I could take some photos outside they said yes, but then said they were starting a studio tour – would we like to see it!
Our first stop and the room that the recording engineer worked the soundboard.
Our tour was lead by a man named Dave Bigham. Our good fortunate hit the jackpot here, as Dave was one of Buddy Holly’s backup singers back in the 1950s.
Dave was a fantastic guide – he was very knowledgeable, adding tons of background to each of the songs. When he started to sing his backup parts along with the song he was playing I got goose bumps!
While the mixing board was updated in the 1970s, most of the other equipment is from the 1950s when Buddy and others recorded here.
In the back of the building is an apartment where the musicians would crash when recording here. The story was told that they tended to record overnight, and sleep through the day.
The studio is where the magic occurred. Nearly all of the instruments, amps and other equipment is original from the 1950s.
We were very honored to have lucked into this tour, and to have Dave lead us through the facility. It was easily one of the highlights of the 3 week road trip.
The actual mic that Buddy Holly recorded all those classics. What an afternoon in Clovis, New Mexico.
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.