Chess Records Co-Founder Phil Chess Dead at 95

Phil Chess
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Phil Chess

Phil Chess, co-founder of the legendary Chicago-based rhythm and blues label Chess Records, which played a pivotal role in the genesis of rock 'n roll in the 1950s, has died at age 95. The Chicago Sun-Times reports that Chess died overnight at his home in Tucson, Ariz.

Chess and his brother Leonard, both Polish immigrants, founded the label in 1950 in Chicago and at first focused on blues and R&B, cutting songs by artists including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim. A year after forming, Chess released what many consider to be the first rock single, "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston/Ike Turner and his Delta Cats.

In 1955, the Chess brothers began a long a fruitful relationship with rock pioneer Chuck Berry, who just turned 90 this week. Under Chess (or its offshoot Checker Records), Berry recorded the classics “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Johnny B. Goode,” among others.

Chess or Checker was also home to guitar icon Bo Diddley, who cut his biggest singles with the label.

Chess was also known for its impressive roster of session musicians, which included Phil Unchurch, Pete Cosey and future Earth, Wind, & Fire members Maurice White and Louis Satterfield. Phil and Leonard handled much of the production themselves out of the label’s Chicago studio, Ter-Mar Studios.

Like many other labels of its time, Chess had a reputation for butting heads with its artists over royalties. In 1974, Howlin’ Wolf sued Chess’ publishing arm Arc Music for $2.5 million in damages, claiming the brothers defrauded him of his copyrights. A settlement was reached after Wolf’s death in 1976, the same year Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon filed similar suits against the company. According to the book Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records, the label used “several methods of undercounting” in order to reduce royalties to writers. Chess denied the allegations, but the suits were settled within weeks of their filing. Terms of the settlement were sealed, but Arc ultimately gave Waters and Dixon back the copyrights to their songs.

The brothers sold the label to General Recorded Tape (GRT) in 1969, for $6.5 million. Leonard died later that year, and Phil retired in 1972.

Chess' nephew told the Sun-Times that a private service is planned in Tucson.