Sadly, the too-small item was buried near the back of the main section of the paper (which, also sadly, is, other than the tiny sports section, the only part of the daily paper these days). There was a small article announcing the passing of longtime Tucsonan Phil Chess. Untold hundreds of millions of people from Baby Boomers on down owe an appreciative nod to Phil Chess for the part that he and his brother Leonard played in laying the groundwork for what would become the soundtrack of their lives.
I got to meet Phil Chess once at a Wildcat basketball game. His granddaughter, with whom I used to play tennis (yes, tennis!), introduced us. He did an amazing job of pretending to be impressed with the fact that I coached basketball. I had absolutely no trouble being impressed with who he was. Alas, while I wanted to discuss Muddy Waters, he wanted to discuss Lute Olson. We sorta met in the middle by talking about then-Wildcat Brian Williams (later Bison Dele), whose father was a member of the '50s singing group, The Platters ("Only You," "My Prayer").
His was the quintessential American success story. He was born Fiszel Czy in a Jewish neighborhood in Poland. He and his brother, Lejzor, moved with their family to Chicago in 1928. There they became Phillip and Leonard Chess. After World War II, Phil and his brother operated the Macomba Lounge, a popular nightspot. In 1950, the brothers founded Chess Records and a legend was born. Many rock historians trace the birth of rock and roll to Chess Records, which started off making what was indelicately referred to as "race music."
They recorded blues legends Howlin' Wolf, Etta James, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson, and the aforementioned Muddy Waters. It was Waters who famously said, "The blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll." Waters also wrote and recorded the seminal blues record "Rollin' Stone," after which both the magazine and some obscure rock band are named.
Musicians would make pilgrimages to Chess Records, sometimes joining in impromptu jam sessions or acting as studio musicians. Both Bo Diddley and Ike Turner got started at Chess Records.
The race music found it way across the Atlantic and was greeted with almost-religious reverence. Pasty-faced white kids all across the British Isles bloodied the fingers trying to play guitar licks in the style of Buddy Guy. Blues players who could walk down the streets of Chicago and not get recognized by anybody would get mobbed when they set foot in London. It was a phenomenon that saddened many of the musicians.
I had a chance to talk to Buddy Guy one time. He was in his 60s at the time, but he looked as though he could play linebacker for the Chicago Bears. (Of course, these days, I could probably play linebacker for the sorry-ass Bears.) I asked him about the scene in Adventures in Babysitting in which the suburban babysitter and her three young charges end up on stage with Albert Collins in front of a packed house of stunned African-Americans.
Guy got this pained look on his face and said, "You go into a blues joint in Chicago, the audience is almost all white. Young (African-Americans) don't appreciate the blues, even though it's their heritage."
Trying desperately to change the subject, I told him that I had once met Phil Chess. His face lit up and he said, "Those guys got us."
After Chess died at 95 on the 18th of October—having outlived his brother by 43 years—Buddy Guy told a Chicago newspaper, "(The Chess brothers) were cuttin' the type of music nobody else was paying attention to. Now you can walk down State Street and see a portrait of Muddy that's 10 stories tall. They had a lot to do with that. They started Chess Records and made Chicago what it is today—the blues capital of the world."
In interviews, Phil Chess would downplay his role. He once said, "I didn't know what I was doing."
Chess Records would eventually get passed by in the 1960s by more-mainstream labels like Motown in Detroit and Stax in Memphis, but the label's legacy was established. Phil and his brother sold the label in 1968 and Phil moved to Tucson, where he owned a ranch outside of town. He could be seen at sporting events from time to time and he loved the racetrack. (He owned a horse, Indian Express, that ran in the 2003 Kentucky Derby.)
He kept in touch with many of the people whose careers he helped to shape, everybody from rock legend Chucky Berry (who turned 90 on the day that Phil Chess died) to jazz great Ramsey Lewis. A few years back, I could have sworn I saw Mr. Chess at a B.B. King concert out at Casino Del Sol. It might have been him, but 15 years had passed since I had met him that one time, so it could also have been just some generic white dude.
Mr. Chess was preceded in death by his wife of 70 years, Sheva, who died in April. His daughter, Pam, was with him when he passed and told him that now he would get to see Leonard.
And the music will be heavenly.