“It can be argued that Leonard Chess, along with a handful of the musicians he signed and promoted and coddled and f*cked over and enriched, invented the very idea of Rock & Roll…He was a harbinger, the first of a legion of white men who would cross the racial divide in search of riches, adventure, authenticity.”
-From Rich Cohen’s Machers and Rockers: Chess Records and the Business of Rock & Roll
Chicago’s Chess Records gave us Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, Eddie Boyd, Bo Diddley, Memphis Slim, Buddy Guy and Chuck Berry, among others. Its place in the Rock & Roll continuum is of extreme importance.
Frankly, they could have stopped with Muddy Waters and been considered very important.
Muddy Waters has a ridiculous resume in terms of influencing what came after him. Library of Congress archivist Alan Lomax recorded him (for the first time) in 1941 in Mississippi, giving him the confidence to play his music for others. He helped found the Chicago style of blues. The Rolling Stones named their band after his 1950-song “Rollin’ Stone.” The magazine Rolling Stone also borrowed the title for its name.
But then brothers Leonard and Phil Chess helped share a jewel with the world.
No better way to elucidate his impact than through the words of other music legends. The following quotes are from Chuck Berry’s official website.
“[My mama] said, ‘You and Elvis are pretty good, but you’re no Chuck Berry.” – Jerry Lee Lewis
“You are most certainly the inspiration for all of today’s rock ‘n’ roll guitarists. Your music is timeless.” – Smokey Robinson
“There’s only one true king of rock ‘n’ roll. His name is Chuck Berry.” – Stevie Wonder
“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” – John Lennon
And from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s website,
“While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together. It was his particular genius to graft country & western guitar licks onto a rhythm & blues chassis in his very first single, “Maybellene.”
For a good, big-picture history lesson (not the little details) about Chess Records, check out the movie Cadillac Records.
Below is an image of 2120 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, the former home of Chess Records. (photo credit Jim Watkins)