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Leonard Chess Bio


Leonard Chess (March 12, 1917 - October 16, 1969) was a record company executive and the founder of Chess Records. He was influential in the development of electric blues. Chess was born Lejzor Czyz in a Jewish community in Motal, Poland (but now within Belarus).[1] He and his brother Fiszel, sister Malka and mother followed their father to Chicago, Illinois in 1928. The family name was changed to Chess, with Lejzor becoming Leonard and Fiszel becoming Philip. Leonard and his brother Phil were involved in the black nightclub scene on the South Side of Chicago by 1947. They soon became associated with Aristocrat Records, and moved the company away from black pop and jazz and closer to pure blues music with artists such as Muddy Waters, Sunnyland Slim and Willie Dixon. Leonard Chess himself played bass drum on one of Muddy Waters's early sessions. In 1948, the Chess brothers took control of the company and in 1950 renamed it Chess Records. "My Foolish Heart" (Gene Ammons), "Rollin' Stone" (Muddy Waters) and "That's All Right" (Jimmy Rogers) showcased the company's new direction. Chess contacted Sam Phillips (of Sun Records) to help find and record new artists in the South. Phillips supplied Chess with recordings by Howlin' Wolf, Rufus Thomas and Doctor Ross among others. Of these, Howlin' Wolf especially became very popular, and Chess Records had to fight over him with other companies which had also been supplied with Wolf recordings by Phillips. Soon, other important artists joined up, including Bo Diddley and Sonny Boy Williamson. In the 1950s, Chess Records' commercial success only grew with artists such as Little Walter, The Moonglows, The Flamingos and Chuck Berry, and in the '60s with Etta James, Fontella Bass, Koko Taylor, Little Milton, Laura Lee and Tommy Tucker, as well as with the subsidiary labels Checker, Argo and Cadet. As the 1960s progressed, Chess's recording enterprise branched out into other genres including gospel, traditional jazz, spoken word, comedy, and more. In the early 1960s, Chess became involved in the broadcasting business as part owner of WVON-AM radio and later acquired WSDM-FM, both in Chicago. In October 1969, a few months after selling his namesake label to General Recorded Tape, Leonard Chess died of a heart attack. The 2008 movies Cadillac Records and Who Do You Love? are both fictional accounts of the ascent (and descent) of the label itself and the personnel involved or who recorded at Chess Records.

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