Chuck Berry And Phil Chess: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll

chessrecordsIf you’ve ever suspected that Rock & Roll was connected to a greater cosmic power, the combination of two news stories this week will surely blow your mind like it did mine. The news of the passing of Phil Chess coming in the same week as the announcement of a new album from Chuck Berry is a pretty freaky coincidence to say the least.

66 years ago in 1950, brothers Phil and Leonard Chess launched a new record label, Chess Records. The Chess brothers had little musical insight, but they operated a popular nightclub in Chicago, and they were impressed with the popularity of the electrified blues and jazz acts that drew big crowds to the club. Selling recordings of these heretofore unknown acts seemed like a good business plan.

Was it ever. Within a year Chess Records started to turn big profits thanks to the fast-rising national popularity of its artists like Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Bo Diddley. Later that year Muddy Waters introduced a skinny guitar player and songwriter from St. Louis named Chuck Berry to the Chess brothers, and they signed him too. In 1955 Chuck Berry topped the charts with “Maybelline”, and Chess Records’ biggest star was born — along with Rock & Roll.

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Although the Chess Brothers were accused over the years of taking financial advantage of their artists, they were known for treating their African-American roster of performers with much more respect and dignity than most other “white” labels afforded them. Often Chuck Berry would stay overnight at Phil Chess’ house, sharing a room with his son Terry. Berry and Chess became friends who helped bring success to one another.

Of course, times change and things move on. The Chess Brothers sold their label and catalog in 1969, and Chuck Berry kept plugging away through the Rock Revolution and beyond. He had an inexplicable #1 hit in 1972 with “My Ding-a-ling”, and experienced a renaissance in 1987 because of the movie Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll. His song “You Never Can Tell” was at the centerpiece of Tarantino’s classic Pulp Fiction, and for the past 20 years Berry has been performing occasionally at his St. Louis nightclub.

So this week we got the surprising news that Chuck Berry is releasing his first new album in 38 years at age 90. And then we heard the sad news that Phil Chess passed away at age 95. The chronological symmetry of these two events makes me shake my head in wonder. If there is a greater cosmic power behind this music we love, its message is clear: Rock & Roll is here to stay, baby.

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