That Chess Records existed at all is a testament to the people who came together to make it happen, at the 20th Century’s midpoint on Chicago’s South Side.
That Chess Records made world-changing music that continues to reverberate across the airwaves and in millions of earbuds, well, I don’t know what to say beyond quoting those two sages of long hair and banging heads, whose first response to greatness in their midst was to yell, “WE’RE NOT WORTHY! WE’RE NOT WORTHY!”
The pair (Wayne and Garth, from “Wayne’s World”) bowed when they yelled it, and I’m inclined to do same whenever I think of the unlikely pairing of Leonard and Phil Chess, two Jewish immigrants from imperial Russia’s Pale of Settlement, and the handful of immensely talented artists — including Muddy Waters, Etta James, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley — some of whom arrived in Chicago displaced from what was for them the most hostile region on Earth (see: Mississippi Delta).
I ain't ashamed to admit that I did fall to my my knees the first time I visited 2120 South Michigan Avenue, where the humble two-story building there once housed the groundbreaking record label.
I knew the backstory already by then — and I learned more about it during the day I spent there, at what is now Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven, a museum run by the family of Chess Records’ legendary producer, songwriter and bass player.
But Chess Records’ singular importance to the popular music that followed really popped for me this week when I listened to Let It Roll, in which Nate interviews author Nadine Cohodas about her book “Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records."
I listened to the episode twice, and by the second time through I had remembered how unworthy I truly am.
Ed Legge (@freebirdyeller) is a life-long musician, long-time journalist and sometime corporate dweeb who’s writing a book about originating rock ‘n’ roll’s most absurd tradition.