Chess Records Top 10 – a tribute to Phil Chess

Chess Records

Chess Records

Following the death of Phil Chess, Getintothis’ Andy Holland has the unenviable task of choosing a handful of Chess Records’ greatest releases.

Phil Chess shouldn’t need any introduction to any serious music fan. Along with brother Leonard, he set up the Chess Records label, which became a magnet for blues singers and musicians who wanted their music to reach a wider audience. Phil Chess was partially responsible for taking the blues out of the fields and into the city, helping to electrify the music, and giving birth to one of the components of rock ‘n’ roll. The blues is the backbone of all popular music, and Chess Records was the leading label in blues.

Without Chess Records there would be no such thing as the guitar-hero and it would be doubtful that the British blues boom would never have happened. The Rolling Stones were even named after a Muddy Waters song released by Chess, and the whole Keef Richards, human-riff persona is based on Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley guitar licks. Jimmy Page has never heard a Chess record that he hasn’t ‘borrowed’ from, which he freely admits, but let’s leave the last word to John Lennon who said, ‘If you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.’  There wouldn’t even have been a Chuck Berry without Chess Records.

Chess passed away at the age of 95 on Thursday, and it started us thinking about the body of work his label has left for us, and we wanted to share a taste of this. It’s a huge task reducing a label like Chess Records down to a Top 10, but here goes nothing…

From labels, to arists, to dogs, check out Getintothis’ past Top 10 lists here. 

10. Sugar Mama (John Lee Hooker)

Since most record labels in the 40s and 50s tended to pay an upfront fee for blues musicians, John Lee Hooker became notorious for recording his songs for as many different labels as possible under various bizarre pseudonyms, some of which are ridiculously half-hearted, John Lee Booker being one example. Hooker’s playing was far from conventional, and this made it hard for a band to accompany him. He was the archetypal deep blues artist, with a raw, emotive, intimate style. His songs didn’t follow any kind of formal structure, and he rarely deviated from one chord, but his sparse style was a masterpiece of simplicity. He would jerk out explosive guitar licks and hammer out chord suspensions that seemed to come from deep within his being. His introverted approach to the blues was impossible to copy but lots of artists covered his work. Boom Boom was a staple of the blues scene, as was his version of Crawling King Snake, Bottle Up And Go, and Boogie Chillun, but none of those records were released on Chess so that that’s why we chose Sugar Mama, which is just as good. Jimi Hendrix‘s Voodoo Chile owed a great deal to John Lee Hooker, and Nick Cave is a massive fan, his song Tupelo is based on Hooker‘s song of the same title.

9. Let Me Love You, Baby (Buddy Guy)

Leonard Chess described Buddy Guy’s guitar playing as ‘noise’ but the label kept him around anyway, which meant that Buddy’s guitar can be heard on a lot of 60s Chess recordings. His playing was very aggressive and extreme for the time, he would let his guitar feedback, and vocally he sounded at the brink of tears. His playing style attracted young guitarists, who were looking for something that tapped into the angst that they were feeling, and Buddy Guy was wringing it out of his guitar on a nightly basis. A Fender Stratocaster had never sounded that way before. Jimi Hendrix loved what he was hearing, as did Jimmy Page, and later Stevie Ray Vaughan. Let Me Love You Baby is one of the most well-known cuts Buddy made for Chess Records. He made only one album in his own right at Chess, but it didn’t really reflect his live style which was far more intense and dynamic.

8. Rescue Me (Fontella Bass)

Fontella Bass’ Rescue Me was one of Chess Records’ biggest successes. It sold a million, but most people today assume that it was released by Atlantic or Motown (in fact, the song was composed primarily to compete with the latter). Bass was a huge vocal talent; her voice rivaled Aretha Franklin’s, and her career should have been as long-lasting. She co-wrote Rescue Me too, but Chess failed to give her the royalties that she was due on the record, which resulted in a long court battle. Despite her great talent, Fontella Bass’ experiences with the music industry eventually disillusioned her, and she retired from it in the early 70s.

7. Rocket 88 (Jackie Brenston/Ike Turner)

Considered by some to be the original rock ‘n’ roll record (arguable), Rocket 88 is still certainly a landmark in rock history. Rocker 88 is about a ‘muscle car’, and songs about cars were quite common during the early rock ‘n’ roll years. Chuck Berry, for example, wrote loads of them; Maybelline, You Can’t Catch Me, No Particular Place To Go, etc. The vocal is Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner provided the fantastic, lightening fast, boogie-woogie piano. This is another recording that was actually made by Sam Philips at Sun, and according to legend Ike Turner’s amp had been damaged on the road. He stuffed in the speaker to stop it rattling, resulting in the fuzz sound heard here. Is this the first time fuzz guitar was ever used? Debateable, we suppose, but it certainly one of the earliest uses of it. Turner was a very innovative musician who was an accomplished guitarist and keyboard player; he loved to experiment with guitar sounds, arrangements, and record production, but his reputation suffered due to his drug use and propensity towards domestic violence against Tina Turner. His accomplishments were enormous though, and deserve to be acknowledged.

6. Tell Mama (Etta James)

Although the Chess Record label is strongly associated with the male-dominated electric blues style, it did other things too. Etta James’ early records were more doo-wop than blues, but she was an incredibly versatile singer with a full contralto vocal range. She not only sang blues, but she made frequent forays into pop, gospel, rhythm and blues, and even rock by the late 60s. Chess Records did have an unfortunate habit of overusing strings in her records though, which was often the go-to method on ‘pop’ records at the time. Maybe that’s why she has been called the great forgotten blues singer, but we at Getintothis haven’t forgotten her. Tell Mama was later covered by Janis Joplin, but this is the definitive version in our opinion. Etta’s vocal performance on this is magnificent, the horn section is powerful, and the whole band is hotter than steaks on a Chicago stove. This record was recorded at Muscle Shoals, and released through Cadet Records label, but it’s still bona fide Chess.

5. Back Door Man (Howlin’ Wolf)

Sam Philips of Sun Records considered Howlin’ Wolf to be the greatest musical discovery he ever made, but by this time the Wolf recording this he had already joined the Chess roster. Howlin’ Wolf was a giant of a man, he delivered some of the most intense performances ever recorded; his voice was loud and earthy, parched and scoured by bloody sandpaper. The Wolf seemed to embody blues at its purest; many of his songs consist of only one chord, mangled drum-beats that swagger like a drunk with a jack-knife, white-hot guitar licks stabbing at the air, and the Wolf’s blues harp howling up a storm. This record sounds dangerous – it is, but it’s not – as some people suppose – about anal sex. Instead the Wolf boasts about his sexual exploits with married women, whilst simultaneously relating a story of murder, judgement, and despair. I think we can all agree that The Doors’ version of Back Door Man sounds nerdy and anaemic in comparison, as much as we love them. We imagine that Jim Morrison did interpret it as being about anal sex, however. Howlin’ Wolf was, of course, enormously influential, lots of artists have covered his songs, and his voice and persona was much imitated by Captain Beefheart, who was a huge fan.

4. Juke (Little Walter)

If you hear a blues harp on a Chess Record, chances are that Little Walter was playing it. Eric Clapton once said during an interview that his guitar sound was nothing new, it was based on what blues-harp players like Little Walter had already done on blues records. This record proves his point in many ways, and it was the only blues harp instrumental that ever topped the R&B Billboard Charts. The guitarist in the background was Muddy Waters. The two were on many of the same recordings at the time.

2. Bo Diddley (Bo Diddley)

Bo’s most famous recordings are self-referential. This is the most famous of them all, featuring his very own beat. It’s one of the greatest beats of all time, based partly on the Cuban clave beat, but a whole lot heavier, deeper, and nastier. Bo called it the ‘shave and a haircut’ beat, and legend has it that his way of demoing this song for Phil Chess was simply slapping the beat out on his thigh while singing along. The both agreed that it would be a sure-fire hit. Bo, like Chuck Berry, had his own unique way of playing a guitar; he tuned it to an open-E and then simply barred it across with one-finger for chords. To be honest it’s a lot more complicated than that, Bo was great guitarist, a classically trained violinist, and was responsible for a lot of very innovative ideas. His was the first band to have a female lead guitarist (Lady Bo). This record must have sounded space-age at in 1955; the use of heavy reverb on the drums was very new, as was Bo’s use of deep tremolo on his guitar. This record was hugely influential; not only did the ‘Bo Diddley Beat’ become massively popular all over the world, but Bo’s approach to production was too. Buddy Holly was such a fan of Bo that he not only used his beat on Not Fade Away (yeah, those Stones again), but he also used his drum production technique on Peggy Sue.

2. Mannish Boy (Muddy Waters)

Muddy recorded so many wonderful records on Chess but we had to go with this one. The original version of this song was by label-mate Bo Diddley and was called I’m A Man, but Muddy Waters’ version is deservedly the most well-known. The amount of testosterone present in this recording is scary, it drips out of the speakers. Muddy doesn’t so much sing this song as brood it, the band swaggering behind him. It’s electric blues stripped to its raw essence, drums pounding like angry fists, a blues harp hisses like a snake about to strike. When Muddy declares ‘I’m a man, a mean mannish boy!’ it feels like an act of defiance delivered to every racist who’d called him ‘boy’, and his band shout in affirmation. This song is a progenitor of James Brown’s Say It Loud in many ways, but in the 50s such a nakedly political statement could never have been made. The Yardbirds turned Mannish Boy into one of their rave-ups in the 1960s, and many others recorded cover versions afterwards.

Roll Over Beethoven (Chuck Berry)

Chuck Berry songs have become rock staples, the most common being Johnny B Goode. We prefer this one though. His songs were heavily covered even in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, by people as diverse as Jerry Lee Lewis and Pat Boone, but the definitive versions remain Chuck’s own. This song became one of George Harrison’s show pieces in early sets by The Beatles, and the whole band were admirers, as illustrated by Lennon’s quote above. Chuck was one of the first guitar-heroes, his style stood out because it was individual. Nobody had ever played the guitar in the way that he did before, in fact his whole approach to the instrument was modeled on his collaborator, Johnnie Johnson’s piano-playing. Chuck is smart, he knows music notation, writes extremely clever lyrics, and doesn’t take shit from anybody. Roll Over Beethoven has a biting guitar sound, the vocal is mean, his delivery almost sounds like a rap in places. The band was hot, you can practically feel the heat of the Chicago Summer, and the sound seems to audibly sweat. The Chess Records studio’s acoustics were legendary, and this record shows them off to great effect.