by Todd Beebe
The 1950’s saw some of the most important and influential Blues recordings ever made come to life. It was a special moment in time, as the traditional Country and Delta Blues were now merging with electric instruments and modern technology. More important was the fact that the Blues was now being made more accessible by means of radio and smaller, independent record labels. Many labels jumped into the game in the 1950’s, but none had the influence and lasting legacy of Chicago’s own Chess Records and Memphis’ Sun Records.
Chess Records was started by Leonard Chess who, in the late 1940’s, bought partial ownership in Aristocrat Records. By 1950, Leonard’s brother Phil Chess became the only other owner of the label, and the two decided to officially rename Aristocrat, Chess Records.
Chess originally opened at 4858 S. Cottage Grove. A second location at 4750 S. Cottage Grove also existed for a while, but the most lasting and memorable address for the label was 2120 South Michigan Avenue. Here, the Chess brothers recorded almost anything and everything. Blues ruled the roost, but Chess recorded many styles including Doo-Wop, Soul, Gospel, Jazz and even Comedy.
[pullquote]The list of Blues who’s who that recorded at Chess: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Rogers, John Lee Hooker, Etta James, Koko Taylor- the list goes on and on.[/pullquote]
Down in Memphis, Sun Records owner Sam Phillips often recorded artists and sold the product to various labels, including Chess. In 1951, Phillips put Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ recording of “Rocket 88” in the hands of Chess Records. With the great Ike Turner on piano, the single was released as Chess 1458 and is often hailed as arguably the first official “Rock n Roll” record.
The “rock” of the great Chess Records was undeniably Willie Dixon. Dixon literally had a hand in almost everything that took place in the studio. Just a few of the roles Mr. Dixon performed while at Chess were musician, producer, arranger, talent scout and of course, songwriter. His songwriting cannot be over emphasized. Such Blues classics as “Back Door Man”, “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Evil”, “I Just Want To Make Love To You”, “Spoonful”, “Wang Dang Doodle” and countless others were all penned by him. He will be remembered forever as a Blues Icon and one of the genres most prolific songwriters. With Dixon’s timeless compositions merging with the Chess artist’s own songs, a parade of classics literally poured out of 2120 S. Michigan Avenue.
In 1952, Leonard and Phil Chess started the subsidiary of Chess, Checker Records. Checker was started to help get more airplay of Chess artists from disc jockeys. Jockeys were only playing so many cuts from any given label at the time. Checker Records now made it possible to get more airplay for anyone signed with Chess Records. This was a common move by many record labels at the time.
It can arguably be said that Rock n Roll had many “birthplaces”. Sun Records at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis is most certainly one of them. Chess Records and 2120 S. Michigan Avenue is also a definitive place for its birth. Besides seeing “Rocket 88” released on its label, countless Rock n Roll icons like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Dale Hawkins recorded there. As the labels’ reputation grew, so did its influence. In 1964, the British Invasion was well underway and the Rolling Stones issued an instrumental titled “2120 S. Michigan Avenue”, paying homage to the great Chess Records and all of their heroes who recorded there.
The label remained at 2120 through the mid 1960’s, when it was relocated to 320 E. 21st. St. in Chicago. By this time Leonard’s son, Marshall Chess had begun working for the label, and contributed many newer ideas, including teaming up the labels’ veteran Blues masters with the upcoming Rock stars of the day. Many great things still occurred at Chess, but the label would never reach the heights of greatness that it achieved at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue.
The story of Elvis Presley walking into Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee and changing the world as we know it has been deservedly well documented, but before Mr. Presley set foot in the now historic studio, Sun was a mecca for the Blues.
Sam Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee on January 3, 1950. The company’s slogan was, “We record anything- anywhere- anytime.” Before long the Memphis Recording Service also went by the name of the Sun Recording Company. Like any up and coming business, Sam Phillips early days with the company were slow and trying, but word soon got around that there was a recording company in Memphis. In those days, there weren’t many other recording companies in the South- so musicians would travel from all over the southern United States to record at Sun Recording Company. Many great artists recorded in the studio, and then had their finished product released on other labels such as Chess & RPM.
Artists who recorded at Sun but had the vinyl product released with a different label were Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, James Cotton and Jackie Brenston. Phillips soon earned a reputation as a studio owner with a great ear for talent, and a man who would give anyone a chance if they had something that sounded good.
Beale Street was a glowing empire for the Blues in the late 1940’s- early 1950’s, and Sun Recording Company was right down the street. Artists literally began to line up at Sam Phillips doors, and the archives now show that he captured the new sound of the electric Blues in its infancy. Many of the classic Blues sides from that era that were released on Chess or RPM’s labels were recorded in that room at 706 Union Avenue.
After the success of “Rocket 88”, Ike Turner became a session musician and production assistant for Sam Phillips. Many artists were sent to Sun to record by the recommendation of Ike Turner.
Phillips soon realized the potential of holding onto his recorded product and releasing it himself. The Sun Record label was officially introduced on March 27, 1952. Blues still ruled the roost for now, but in 1954, Elvis Presley walked through the doors at Sun, and from that point on, Phillips’ focus turned to Rock n Roll and Country music.
Most people probably think that Sam Phillips felt his greatest discovery was Elvis, but that’s not the case however. When asked in an interview who his greatest discovery was, of all the artists that walked through Sun’s doors, Phillips stated the greatest was Howlin’ Wolf. This quote from Sam Phillips explains everything:
“When I heard him, I said, ‘this is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies’. He was about six foot six, with the biggest feet I’ve ever seen on a human being. Big Foot Chester is one name they used to call him. He would sit there with those feet planted wide apart, playing nothing but the French harp, and I tell you, the greatest show you could see today would be Chester Burnett doing one of those sessions in my studio. God, what would it be worth to see the fervor in that man’s face when he sang. His eyes would light up and you’d see the veins on his neck, and buddy, there was nothing on his mind but that song. He sang with his damn soul.”
Sam Phillips and the Sun Record Company will always be rightfully associated with the birth of Rock n Roll, but make no mistake- a big reason for that association is the great Blues and great musicians he recorded prior to Elvis’ arrival at Sun.
In 1993, 2120 S. Michigan Avenue was designated an official protected Chicago landmark. Willie Dixon’s wife, Marie, purchased the property, and donated the building to house the Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation, which officially opened its doors on September 16, 1997. Blues Heaven does many wonderful things to help the community and Blues artists- securing copyrights and royalties for Blues musicians, and working to preserve the Blues’ legacy. Many free concerts have been given at Blues Heaven, and they are open for tours of the historic building throughout the year. Contact them at 312-808-1286 or email [email protected]
Here is some more information from Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation on their fantastic organization, and what they do:
BLUES HEAVEN FOUNDATION’S mission is to help artists and musicians obtain what is rightfully theirs, and to educate both adults and children on the history of the Blues and the business of music. To achieve this mission, we have successfully executed several programs, including The Muddy Water’s Scholarship, Music Clinics, Music in the Garden/Record Row Festival, and Emergency Assistance, and are looking to establish additional programs in the near future. In order to help maintain the existence of Blues Heaven Foundation, and to realize the dream of its founder, Willie Dixon, your support is imperative. You can make a tax deductible donation at www.bluesheaven.com.
The Sun Records building at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee is a magical address for the Blues that’s is open for tours year round. It has literally remained unchanged since the 1950’s. The original tiles from back in the day are still on the floor! Next time you’re in Memphis check it out. Standing in the room where all that magic occurred will send chills down your spine. That’s the power of Sam Phillips and the Blues!
2120 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago and 706 Union Avenue in Memphis: two historical addresses for the Blues, whose structures still stand, waiting for you to visit them! Do it now!