All That Czyz
Chess Records was the defining monument of Chicago Blues.
By Dave Chamberlain
SEPTEMBER 20, 1999: In 1947, the Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil -- sons of a Polish immigrant -- expanded beyond the family stores and clubs to form Aristocrat Records. By 1954, the brothers had started -- in addition to Chess and Aristocrat -- the Argo, Cadet and Checker labels.
The motivation behind the Chess labels were the men playing in the Chess brothers' clubs, mostly African Americans who had relocated from the South, and who were playing revved-up, electric versions of the traditional Delta blues. Young men like Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley and Buddy Guy were scorching taverns, but were ignored by major recording companies in favor of lighter-sounding jazz and more restrained, traditional blues. With Chess Records, the Chicago blues blossomed.
And in countless pictures of the Phil and Len, you'll often notice a clean cut young man: Marshall Chess, son of Leonard. Born in Chicago in 1942, by the time the label began making a national name, Marshall went to work for the family business.
"I was the oldest son," says Marshall Chess. "My dad was always working, so going to work was a way to see him." Marshall worked with Chess through its sale in 1970. He stayed in the music business afterwards, forming Rolling Stone Records and Arc Music, a still-active music publishing company.
Chess could rest on his laurels, but he's not. The 58-year-old Chess just re-anted in the independent label game, starting Czyz Records -- its name in honor of the Chess family's pre-immigration name (pronounced Chaz).
"About eight or ten months ago, I found out that [Czyz] was the original spelling of my family name." It seems that officials on Ellis Island couldn't pronounced C-Z-Y-Z, so it was registered as Chess. His family had come to America from Mutol, Poland, a microscopic farming village.
"My grandfather used to tell stories about how, during winter, he'd have to bring a horse inside for its body heat." And why did the Czyz family leave Mutol? "Because there was a horse in the kitchen," laughs Chess.
September 21 marks the release of Czyz Records' debut, Murali Coryell's "2120," so named after Chess' old Chicago address at 2120 South Michigan. Coryell was chosen very carefully.
"When the blues were discovered by white people," explains Chess, "it was discovered as Americana or folk music. But I remember these guys [Waters, Wolf, Guy] when they were 20. When the blues was more of a funky, sexual thing." That's what Chess believes Coryell brings.
"He's such a good guitar player. I'd heard a couple recordings at festivals he'd made, and this became a record I had to make."
"2021" uses no overdubbing, a method preferred -- almost insisted upon -- by Chess. "The old blues and rock had a magic, a spontaneity to them. Once correction became possible, it changed the course of production. You can make a perfect 'sounding' record, but it's a different focus once the possibility of correction is removed. Muddy Waters. Chuck Berry. Bo Diddley. I was exposed to these guys, who -- when they recorded -- sang and played guitar at the same time."
Chess is taking a hands-on approach to Czyz, from production to publicity. "At Chess," he boasts, "we all did the calls. I'm just doing what the old record men did, talking to merchandisers, retail stores, radio stations and writers."
He's also impressed with the possibilities of the Internet. "I think it's the best thing since payola. [Payola] was the key element to exposure for the independents. The current majors [labels] have a lock, but the Internet is opening up chances for a guy like me."
And is a return to Chess' old stomping grounds (Chess lives in New York) on the board? "Anything can happen. That's what I've learned in my 58 years."
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