Just one day after Chuck Berry’s 90th birthday, the man that gave Berry his start for an incredible run of genre-birthing hits, Phil Chess, has died at 95. Chess and his brother Leonard changed the name of Aristocrat Records to Chess Records in 1950 after Leonard had been a partner there for two years. Phil Chess retired from Chess Records in 1972 after signing a veritable who’s who of artists to his label, including: Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, and of course Berry, among many others.
Chess Records artists are largely credited as progenitors of rock ‘n’ roll, and Chess displayed incredible foresight while personally recruiting many of the biggest acts on his label’s roster. He was inducted to the Blues Hall Of Fame as a non-performer in 1995 along with his brother. In February 2013, Chess attended the ceremony to receive the Recording Academy’s Trustees Awards for non-performers, again with his brother. But Chess would routinely downplay the integral role he played in music by responding, “I didn’t know what I was doing,” when asked about his success.
The story of Chess Records origins and improbable influence was adapted for the big screen twice: first in the 2008 film Cadillac Records and then in 2010’s Who Do You Love.
Chess’ family is planning a private service in Tucson, Arizona, according to his nephew.