Anyone who has ever listened to, loved or played rock and roll has Chess Records and their groundbreaking artists to thank.
The label, which was founded in 1950 by brothers Phil and Leonard Chess played a huge role in the musical revolution of the mid-20th century. Not only was the label home to artists such as Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Little Walter, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, it helped to shape the future of rock and roll by inspiring The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Janis Joplin, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and many more.
Recorded in 1960, and produced by Chess Records founders Phil and Leonard Chess, At Last! served as the debut album from soul and blues game changer, Etta James. The Chess brothers believed that James’ voice had pop potential, so orchestral arrangements feature on a number of the ten songs. The pop crossover and James’ unforgettable vocal performance resulted in a sound that audiences loved. The album hit number 12 on the Billboard Top Catalog Albums chart and is arguably Chess Records most famous release.
The LP was originally released on Chess’ subsidiary label Argo, and re-released by Chess in 1999.
2. Muddy Waters – Folk Singer (1964)
Released in 1964, Folk Singer is Muddy Waters’ fourth studio album. The record features Waters on acoustic guitar, accompanied by Willie Dixon on upright bass, Clifton James on drums, and Buddy Guy on acoustic guitar. Despite the peculiar name of the album, it is very much a blues record. The title was decided on by Chess Records executives as it was recorded during the height of folk music, and they wanted to appeal to folk audiences.
Combining covers and originals, it is Waters’ only all-acoustic album and captures his voice in all its dominance and subtlety, his guitar playing is so illuminated it’s as though you’re in the studio with him. The sound quality of the unplugged session remains highly revered among music lovers.
3. Chuck Berry – Chuck Berry Is On Top (1959)
Chuck Berry Is on Top is the third studio album by rock n rolls biggest male pioneer Chuck Berry. Released in July 1959, the album is a collection of previously released singles, many of which had a B side and charted twice. Featuring songs such as “Maybellene,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” the album is considered a small greatest hits collection, and the most well put together anthology of Berry’s career. The only new song to appear on the record was “Blues for Hawaiians.”
4. Howlin’ Wolf – Moanin’ In The Moonlight (1959)
In 1959, Chess Records released Moanin’ in the Moonlight, the debut album by legendary Chicago blues innovator Howlin’ Wolf. As with most of their releases, the LP was a collection of Wolf’s previously released Chess singles. Serving as yet another mini greatest hits anthology, the track listing for the album consisted of the biggest songs of his career including “How Many More Years,” and audience favorite “Smokestack Lightnin’.”
Rolling Stone magazine ranked the album as #153 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, further securing the LP as not only an essential Chess album but the most important release of Wolf’s career.
5. Buddy Guy – I Left My Blues In San Francisco (1967)
Throughout his early career, BG appeared as a session guitarist on numerous Chess recordings, most notably Muddy Waters’ 1964 release Folk Singer. By the late 1960s, Guy had signed on to become one of the label’s new solo artists, though it was far from a smooth sailing relationship. The label and its founders refused to record Guy playing in the style of his live shows, referring to it as “noise,” and instead they attempted to make his sound more widely accessible.
Due to the lack of creative freedom, he was given Guy’s only Chess album was his debut LP, I Left My Blues in San Francisco, released in 1967. While some of the album’s tracks feature a big band, and stylistically lean more towards soul, the album is still full of the kind of knee-wobbling, earth quaking, soul awakening blues vocals, and guitar playing that would go on to define his sound for decades to come.
- Little Walter – Best of Little Walter (1958)
As with the majority of Chess Records’ albums, the Best of Little Walter was full of previously released singles. The compilation album was the harmonica players first LP, containing ten of his singles that charted in the Top 10 of the Billboard R&B chart from 1952 to 1955. Best of Little Walter is the perfect introduction to the blues legend and his hits. In 1991, the LP was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in the “Classics of Blues Recordings – Album” category.
- Bo Diddley – Bo Diddley In The Spotlight (1960)
Released in 1960 via Chess subsidiary Checker, and re-released in 1987 through Chess Records, Bo Diddley In The Spotlight is a treasure trove of Bo Diddley’s early recordings.
The album features twelve varied tracks including the romantic “Love Me,” the doo-wop-style “Deed and Deed I Do,” alongside the upbeat rockers such as “Let Me In,” “Road Runner,” and “The Story of Bo Diddley.” This is a special collection of songs that highlight Diddley’s diversity as an artist.
- John Lee Hooker – “Plays and Sings The Blues” (1961)
John Lee Hooker Plays & Sings The Blues is another compilation album put out by Chess in 1961 to showcase Hooker’s best tracks. Much like Waters’ Folk Singer, the album has a stripped back, raw blues sound. The quality differs from track to track, and in true blues fashion, the only rhythm section to be heard is Hooker stomping on a wooden block.
Hooker’s inability to keep a traditional beat made it impossible to set up studio sessions akin to the ones Muddy Water’s had taken part in. However, the result of his individual effort is astounding works of unorthodox structure and rhythm that only Hooker could have conjured. An unfiltered blues record in all of its glory.
- Howlin’ Wolf – The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions (1971)
Chess Records mainstay Howlin’ Wolf released a number of singles and albums on the label throughout his career. This 1971 Chess records release consists of tracks Howlin’ Wolf recorded with the big shot British blues musicians of the time, all of whom had been hugely influenced by Wolf, and Chess Records.
Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts each feature prominently on the record and are credited on the album’s cover. The inclusion of the second generation rock and rollers, who had started their journeys learning from the blues master, made for a thrilling blues supersession. The album peaked at #79 on the Billboard 200.
- Jimmy Rogers – Chicago Bound (1970)
Chicago bluesman Jimmy Rogers recorded for Chess from 1950 to 1959. While he only had one hit on the Billboard charts with “Walking By Myself,” he was responsible for some of the blues’ biggest classics. Rogers’ works feature praiseworthy backing from musicians such as Little Walter, Big Walter, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Otis Spann, and his tasteful singing and playing were embellished by his band’s efforts. Rogers’ Chess singles, most notably those chosen for Chicago Bound truly capture the spirit of 1950s blues.