Chess Records, the Chicago Blues, and the Rolling Stones

On their first US tour in 1964, the Rolling Stones made a pilgrimage to Chicago. “2120 South Michigan Avenue was hallowed ground,” writes Keith Richards in his 2010 autobiography. “There in the perfect sound studio, in the room where everything we’d listened to was made…we recorded fourteen tracks in two days. One of them was… ‘It’s All Over Now,’ our first number one hit.”
Brothers Phil and Leonard Chess were cigar-chomping, old-school record men who started out in the liquor business in Chicago. They produced mostly jazz, but took a chance on a rough blues singer from Mississippi called Muddy Waters. The raw country blues of Waters’s “I Can’t Be Satisfed” was the hit that put the Chess brothers and their studio on the map.

Leonard Chess died in 1969, but his son, Marshall, and Phil sat for an interview with WGBH in 1994. 
“Waters’s recording is remembered as the first masterpiece of electric Chicago blues,” says music historian Elijah Wald. Chess Records followed with records by Little Walter, Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, as well as Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.
These were the saints in the church of the blues, and among their most ardent admirers were two teenagers from the UK, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. They were childhood friends who reconnected in the Dartford railroad station when Richards spotted the Chess records that Jagger was carrying under his arm.
“This cat’s together and he’s got the best of Muddy Waters and ‘Rocking at The Hop’ by Chuck Berry under his arm,” says Richards, who recalls the encounter in Rock & Roll. “‘Hey man, nice to see you, but where did you get the records?’”
Long before American teenagers caught on to it, a generation of young Brits had been captured by the sound of authentic American blues. But the records were hard to come by, “coveted keys to a mysterious, faraway world,” as music historian Wald describes them. Jagger had ordered his by mail from Chicago.
With fellow blues-lovers Brian Jones, Ian Stewart and Charlie Watts, Jagger and Richards formed a band and named it after a Muddy Waters song, “Rollin’ Stone.” Rock & Roll includes the text of a letter Jones wrote to the BBC in January 1963, asking for airtime, in which he articulated the group’s philosophy: “The band’s policy is to play authentic Chicago rhythm and blues music, using outstanding exponents of the music such as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, etc.”
The BBC turned them down on the basis that their singer sounded too black.
In 1964, the Stones and the Animals brought the sound of the British blues to the US, and the Stones made their pilgrimage to Chess. Marshall, then 22, had a sense of what to expect, but Phil and Leonard were baffled. 
“My brother looked at me and I looked up and said, ‘Who are they?’” Phil says. “They looked like freaks.”
Phil and Leonard were not alone. “I’ll tell you in Chicago in the heart of the Midwest, we hadn’t seen people who looked [and] acted like the Rolling Stones,” Marshall says. “Their hair, the way they looked. They…were drinking hard liquor out of the bottle. That wasn’t really happening very big in Chicago at that time.”
Still, the sessions were a success. “They wanted the Chess sound…to be exactly like the originals,” Marshall says in our video clip. “But it came out like the Rolling Stones, which was great.”
Watch the whole interview with Marshall and Phil on Open Vault. Find the Stones’ instrumental salute to Chess, “2120 Michigan Avenue,” on iTunes.

Elizabeth Deane was the creator and executive producer of the 10-part, Peabody Award–winning series “Rock & Roll.” She says about the experience, "Like many viewers, I brought a general knowledge of rock history to the project, but it’s interviews like this one, produced by Dan McCabe and Vicky Bippart, that deepened our treatment of the music and set the series apart from other rock histories. We focused on the innovators — the people who changed the music — not only artists but also producers, songwriters, studio engineers and session musicians. The series premiere in 1995 was a big event for WGBH and our partners at the BBC, who produced five of the shows; we’re proud to have this opportunity to show off this rock 'n' roll gem from the archives."

The licensing rights to the epic 10-part series (1995) have lapsed; however, WGBH Archives has a small grant from the Grammy Foundation to preserve the uncut interviews for the five programs produced by WGBH.

Rock & Roll on Open Vault

About Inside the WGBH Open Vault

Open Vault is the WGBH Media Library and Archives (MLA) website of unique and historically important content produced by WGBH's public television and radio stations. It provides online access to video, audio, images, searchable transcripts, and resource management tools —available for individual and classroom learning. Learn more:

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