Cambridge Encyclopedia » Cambridge Encyclopedia Vol. 45

Leonard Chess

chicago records blues waters

Recording executive, born in Poland. The founder of Chess Records, he was raised in Chicago, where his immigrant family settled in 1928. In 1939 he and his brother Phil Chess opened the Macombo Lounge, a nightclub catering for African-American patrons on Chicago's South Side. In 1946, the brothers formed Aristocrat Records and recorded several local blues artists, notably Muddy Waters. In 1950 Aristocrat was succeeded by Chess Records, which they operated until its sale in 1968. Throughout its operation, the company featured the major figures of Chicago blues, including Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Willie Dixon, and this is its chief legacy. By 1955 it had diversified to include rock 'n' roll pioneers Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and in the 1960s its most popular artist was the soul singer Etta James. In 1963 he purchased radio station WVON (‘Voice of the Negro’) in Chicago, and at the time of his death from a heart attack, his firm, L & P Broadcasting, owned additional stations in Chicago and Milwaukee.

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