The Chess brothers were Jewish, as so many early music promoters who recorded black artists seem to have been, and emigrated from Poland to Chicago in 1928. By the 1940s they had established several nightclubs, the successful being the Mocambo. Realizing that the blues performers they booked were not being recorded, the brothers decided to move into the record business. In 1947 they entered into a partnership with Charles and Evelyn Aron, who had just formed Aristocratic Records to record blues and jazz; in 1949 the brothers bought out their partners, and the company became Chess Records.
Their first important artist was Muddy Waters (the man who invented electricity, so I've heard), who they recorded as they heard him playing in clubs: raw, unadorned, real. Other blues musicians began coming to Chicago to play with Muddy. Greats who signed with Chess or Checkers early on included Howlin' Wolf (who had been a 300 lb farm worker), John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, and many more. In 1955 Chess Records signed on Chuck Berry, who recorded many of the earliest rock hits for the label, including "Roll Over Beethoven", "Johnny B. Goode", "Sweet Little Sixteen"...I could go on and on. Another big moneymaker for Chess, signed in 1955, was Bo Diddley. Etta James came to the label as a teenager, and recorded a string of hits over the next 15 years. The list of performers who recorded with Chess or its subsidiaries (Checker and Argo) is staggering, and makes clear the formative place of the labels in doo-wop, R&B, blues, jazz, and even gospel music. Chess was the first to record Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul.
Although both brothers were involved in the business, Leonard seems to have been the dominant one, having the artistic vision of what he wanted the company to be and the drive to make it happen. Etta James remembers him in the early days selling albums from the trunk of his car, armed with a big gun. As the company grew, the brothers turned more and more of the artistic side of the business over to legendary producers like Ralph Bass and Billy Davis. However, when Davis left in 1968 Chess began a quick decline which was hastened when Leonard died in 1969. Though many of the records were hauled off to the dump, the master tapes survived and became the property of MCA, which has re-released many of these classic early cuts.
There are a surprising number of websites on Chess. The official one, which has a stunning list of their recording artists, is at
There's also an informative website, with extensive discographies, at