What would you do if you’re 20 and a guy hit on your girlfriend? Get jealous? Punch him? Be flattered? And what would you do if the hitter was 40 years older than you, played a rectangular guitar, and was a bona fide blues legend and member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d write a Song of The Week about it.
It all started with the pogroms in the shtetl of Częstochowa (Poland), as does so much of our history. Joseph Czyż fled to Chicago, where he toiled in the booming bootleg business till he had the gelt to bring over his wife, daughter Malka, and sons Fiszel and Lejzor. After fighting the Nazis in the war, the now-American Phil and Leonard Chess opened a night club, which evolved into the Chess Records recording studio, specializing in the new electric blues.
As early as 1951 they got Sam Phillips to send them up some talent from down in Memphis, such as Howlin’ Wolf and Rufus Thomas. They signed and recorded such luminaries as Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Etta James, Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon and our Songmaster of The Week, Mr Bo Diddley.
The label was so successful that they had to set up a subsidiary, Checker, because radio stations would only play a limited number of records from any one label. Chess/Checker was so seminal to the blues scene, including the British Invasion, that the Rolling Stones recorded a raunchy instrumental in the Chess studios at ‘2120 South Michigan Avenue’ on their first visit to the US (during which I was privileged to see them perform). Two mediocre bio-flix were made about Chess in 2008 –