When I moved to Chicago in 2011, I spent my first three years working for a non-profit in the South Loop. During my lunch breaks, I liked to walk around the neighborhood. If you’ve never been to the South Loop, there isn’t much to see. With condo buildings up and down Michigan Avenue, the whole area is very grey. So much concrete that it was jarring to see these shrines of modernity jutting out of an otherwise crumbling landscape.
However, you can find little pockets that are quite interesting. The southern part of Grant Park is just off the Roosevelt red line. The Museum Campus isn’t too far away either. Even in Prairie District, a little neighborhood pocketed at 18th and Michigan, you’ll find some green space as well as some historical points of interest. However, for me, the real gem of the South Loop was located a few blocks down from where I worked. Amidst all the high rises and urban decay, you’ll find a little haven located at 2120 South Michigan.
Phil Chess, one of the founders of Chess Records, passed away this week. Chess Records, the legendary record label, could be found a few different places in Chicago. However, none of the locations were as famous as the one at 2120 South Michigan Avenue. In 1950, Chess Records was founded by Leonard and Phil Chess. Polish immigrants, Phil and his brother Leonard would go on to develop and support a supremely talented roster of artists including Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Etta James, and Howlin Wolf. These artists who recorded for the greatest rhythm & blues label of all time would not only help lay the foundation for rock and roll, but also influence the next generation of artists who took the form and elevated it to new aesthetic and commercial heights.
One group inspired by the blues records coming out of Chess were the pasty clan of Englishmen known as the Rolling Stones. In June 1964, the group went to Chicago to record at Chess and to meet some of their heroes. These Chess recordings would appear on their Five by Five EP released in August that year. While the Rolling Stones would grow to be one of the biggest rock bands of all time, their beginnings were humble and born out of their fandom of Chicago blues music.
“2120 South Michigan Avenue” is a bluesy instrumental homage to Chess Records. What started with Bill Wyman practicing a bass riff became a full-on jam featuring the entire group (with no vocals, Mick Jagger is credited with the tambourine). While this isn’t the best track by the Rolling Stones, it does stand out. Musically, it is very much in the style of the magic Leonard and Phil were pressing on wax. Also, it is a direct tribute to the label and it’s sound.
“2120 South Michigan Avenue” is by no way the best, or even remotely close to best, song recorded at Chess. We’re talking about the studio that released “At Last,” “I’m A Man,” “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “Maybellene,” “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coohie Man,” and so many more great rhythm & blues classics. It seems a little peculiar to choose an obscure Rolling Stones instrumental as my song tribute to the passing of Phil Chess when considering the scores of better songs on the label. I’ll write about those songs eventually, but I got to thinking about the influence Chess Records had. The men and women who recorded those classic songs deserve every ounce of credit they can get. Their talent made rock and roll what it is today. All the monumentally successful artists who were inspired by and ripped off Chess owe their success to Leonard and Phil. It is a shame that these black artists who built the form didn’t become as big as artists like Eric Clapton or the Rolling Stones, but that is how the story goes. Since they were black, their audience and commercial appeal were limited. It took a couple scrawny English group to take their sound and deliver it a mass audience.
“2120 South Michigan Avenue” is merely a footnote in the great Chess catalog, but it is a prime example of how influential the label was for the development of rock and roll. Even if it had to come in the form of scrawny English guys ripping off black musicians, the sound had to be heard.
Chess Records became defunct in 1975. Now, if you were to walk down Michigan Avenue, you’ll find Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation in it’s place. It is an organization designed to help black musicians rightfully reclaim the music they created that would later be stolen by white rock groups. The Blues Heaven Foundation works to educate students and the public on blues music including it’s history and the workings of the music business. It is a place I love and where I would walk past almost every day on my way to work. It is important for what used to be there, and what it continues to be.