Remembering Phil Chess
This week, the music industry lost a legend. Record executive, Phil Chess, co-founder of the famous Chess Records label passed away on October 18, 2016 at the age of 95. He will forever be remembered for his key role in electrifying the blues and paving the way for rock ‘n’ roll.
As some of you may know, my new novel, Windy City Blues is based on the Chess Records story and so I’ve spent the past year and a half researching the label, the musicians and the brothers Chess. Their journey is a remarkable one: two Polish immigrants who came to this country and with no musical abilities of their own, launched their renowned blues label. Phil along with his older brother Leonard, introduced the world to such musical icons as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, and on and on it goes.
Pop culture has often cast the older brother Leonard, as the star of the label. In the film Cadillac Records starring Beyonce and Adrian Brody, Phil was completely eclipsed, left on the cutting room floor. But then again, that film got so little of the amazing Chess story right. One didn’t need to delve too deep to realize that there would not have been a Chess Records without Phil.
Sadly, I never had the opportunity to meet Phil but I did get to know members of his family. And from everything I’ve read and heard, I can honestly say that Leonard may have been the face of Chess Records, but Phil was heart of the label. He was the one the artists went to. He was the personality and the support that Leonard needed. Whereas Leonard was driven almost to the point of obsession, Phil was more family oriented and took both families, his and Leonard’s, on their annual trips to Miami where they vacationed at the Thunderbird Hotel.
The tributes for Phil Chess have been many. Take a look at what Rolling Stone, NPR, NYT, and the Chicago SunTimes have said about him. A quick Google search will bring up countless more. It is befitting that Chuck Berry should turn 90 and announce the release of a new album on the very day that we said goodbye to Phil Chess. My heartfelt condolences to the Chess family. RIP Phil.