50 Chicago Artists Who Changed Popular Music — Chess Records And Early Rock ’N’ Roll
The story of early rock ’n’ roll in Chicago is, of course, the story of a record label.
Chess Records became famous for bringing the sounds of electric blues to the world, including many of the artists highlighted in part one of this series.
None of the three Chess Records giants cited below were originally from Chicago — so some might consider it cheating to claim them here. But as with the blues and the Great Migration, these artists were drawn here by the city’s creative energy, and it is indelibly reflected in their sounds. In fact, it is now inconceivable that they could have been made anywhere else.
7. Chuck Berry
“I grew up thinking art was pictures until I got into music and found I was an artist and didn’t paint.”
Born into a middle-class family in St. Louis in 1926, Charles Edward Anderson Berry was rightly celebrated as the true founder of rock ’n’ roll upon his death this month at age 90. He arrived in Chicago in 1955 and was brought into the Chess stable by Muddy Waters.
Chess had already released what many historians consider the first rock ’n’ roll record, the 1951 single “Rocket 88.” The song is credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats — a.k.a. Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm — the single actually was recorded by Sam Phillips at Sun Studios in Memphis and merely licensed to brothers Phil and Leonard Chess in Chicago.
Berry had two strings of timeless hits recorded in Chicago for Chess, the first starting with his rewriting of the country tune “Ida Red” as “Maybellene” in 1955 and continued with “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Carol,” “Little Queenie” and others through 1962. After spending time in prison for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines, Berry recorded “No Particular Place to Go,” “You Never Can Tell,” “Nadine” and others into the early '70s.
Taken as a whole — and they still are best appreciated on the 1982 best-of album The Great Twenty-Eight — these songs were rightly hailed by many who commemorated Berry’s death for being as sophisticated lyrically as they are musically.
Many critics failed to mention that before Berry, the piano could just as well have become rock’s dominant instrument. But afterwards it’s unimaginable that anything but the guitar would reign supreme. I also didn't see many critics note that the attitude Berry projected onstage, and on records, was every bit as powerful as the sounds. His sly, sarcastic, slightly risqué and always conspiratorial wink-and-a-nod essentially said: “It’s us against them, baby." It was the clued-in vs. the squares, the young at heart against the old, and the rebels vs. the conservatives.
Berry established then and forever that the best rock is potent music of opposition.
8. Etta James
“You can’t fake this music. You might be a great singer or a great musician but that's got nothing to do with it. It’s how you connect to the songs.”
Etta James (real name Jamesetta Hawkins) was born to a 14-year-old and raised in Los Angeles. She came to Chicago and started her recording career with the Chess brothers in 1960.
Leonard Chess envisioned her as a pop balladeer, but her attitude of female self-empowerment was pure rock ’n’ roll. Her lasting contribution to the nascent music was her fusion of its emergent sound with classic pop, soul, jazz and gospel on hits such as “Tell Mama,” “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” and “At Last.” James died in 2012 at age 73 after a life of heartbreak and drug addiction.
9. Bo Diddley
“Don’t let your mouth write a check your tail can’t cash.”
Born in McComb, Mississippi, in 1928, Ellas Otha Bates moved with his family to the South Side of Chicago at age 6. He reinvented himself as Bo Diddley and began his recording career at Chess in 1955.
His influence on rock ’n’ roll drumming and rhythm guitar is as potent as Berry’s on lead guitar. Songs such as “Bo Diddley,” “Diddley Daddy,” “Who Do You Love?,” “Hey! Bo Diddley,” “Roadrunner” and “Bring it to Jerome” are the undeniable connection between African tribal rhythms and hip-hop (where echoes of the playful insults he traded with maracas player Jerome Green also can be heard). The giant behind the rectangular guitar and over-sized eyeglasses died in 2008 at age 79 at his home in Florida, where he’d retired.
About this series:
In my “other” role as an assistant professor at Columbia College Chicago, I was asked in the fall of 2015 to develop one of several “Big Chicago” classes intended to introduce first-semester students to the rich and diverse culture of Chicago. “Music & Media in Chicago” has made me think long and hard about the passions that have consumed my life. Last summer my editors at WBEZ said, “Hey, we should highlight your overview of Chicago music here!”
In comparison to smaller cities such as Nashville, Memphis, Detroit and Austin, Chicago pays woefully little attention to its musical history, doing little to trumpet the past or celebrate the present for residents or tourists. Mind you, this and every installment of “Chicago Music History 101” is just one critical fan’s take on what is most in need of recognition from our long and rich sonic legacy.
Limiting the series to “50 Chicago Artists Who Changed Popular Music” is completely arbitrary — it could have been 100, or 1,000 — and I’m leaving other genres such as jazz and country to other critics and fans. This overview also is entirely subjective: Every reader and listener can and should have their own list. This simply is a place to get the conversation started.
Special thanks to ace director and videographer Andrew Gill, online majordomo Tricia Bobeda, and former digital intern Jack Howard for all of their help.
Click here for Part One in this series, the Blues.