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Phil Chess 1921-2016

By | Published on Thursday 20 October 2016

Chess Records

Chess Records founder Phil Chess has died at his home in Tuscon, Arizona. He was 95.

Born Fiszel Czyż in Poland in 1921, Chess and his younger brother Leonard founded Chess Records in 1950 – essentially relaunching Aristocrat Records, in which Leonard had bought a stake three years earlier. Specialising in blues and R&B, the company released what is often considered to be the first rock n roll single, ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston And His Delta Cats (the Delta Cats actually being Ike Turner’s Kings Of Rhythm).

Chess became a pioneer in what was then still termed ‘race music’, going on to release gospel, soul, doo-wop and jazz through various imprints, as well as moving into music publishing. The label is particularly known for its association with artists such as Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Bo Diddley and Etta James. Members of the label’s in-house session band also went on to form Earth, Wind & Fire.

Confirming Chess’s death to the Chicago Sun-Tribune, his daughter Pam said that her father remained in contact with many of the artists he had worked with. “He talked to BB King all the time on the phone”, she said. “He ran into Ramsey Lewis six or so years ago in San Diego. He talked to Chuck Berry”.

He is survived by Pam, his son Kevin, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Chess’s wife of 70 years, Sheva Jonesi, died in April.