I am a serious music lover. More specifically, I adore the blues and rock ‘n roll. Etta James is my favorite singer of all time. By a stroke of good luck, I live just five blocks from Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago. However, I have a serious confession. I also live eight blocks from the historic Chess Records Studios but had not toured it until last week. This fact seems unbelievable, but I have, finally, righted that wrong. Today, I am happy to share my experience with you. Below is the rockin’ good news about Chess Records:
Chess Records was formed and run by
brothers Leonard and Phil Chess who were Polish immigrants living in Chicago. The company produced and released many legendary, musical recordings within the blues, rock ‘n roll, R&B, jazz and polka genres. Some of the most famous acts to record at Chess Records include Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Etta James, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy and The Rolling Stones. Willie Dixon was one of the primary producers, songwriters, and arrangers of the signature “Chess Records Sound.” The acoustics in this studio space are stellar!
The most famous location for Chess Records is 2120 South Michigan Avenue, and the heyday for recordings ran from 1956 – 1965. In 1993, Willie Dixon’s widow, Marie, purchased the building. She renovated it and reopened it four years later as the Blues Heaven Foundation, a dedication to her husband.
The mission of the Blues Heaven Foundation is to help artists and musicians learn the history of the blues, as well as the business of music, in general.
More specifically, the Blues Heaven Foundation connects struggling musicians with lawyers (pro bono) who help them with the legal work necessary to protect their artistic rights. On my recent visit to the Blues Heaven Foundation, A.K.A Chess Records, I had an extensive conversation with Keith Dixon, Willie’s Dixon’s grandson. He talked about the many good deeds this foundation is carrying out for musicians and artists, many of whom don’t have a place to live and who are trying to learn the very complicated business of music. The rich history of legendary artists like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and B.B. King mentoring young musicians’ talents and knowledge of the music business is something I admire greatly. Such altruism and humbleness are testaments to their mutual love of the blues and the music industry.
Up and coming musicians can enjoy music clinics at Chess Records / Blues Heaven Foundation, as well as apply for the Muddy Waters Scholarship and the Willie Dixon Scholarship which offer funds for college education in the field of music.
The Blues Heaven Foundation does not widely publicize visits by big-name celebrities when they come to Chicago. However, many such musicians do visit often. Members of The Rolling Stones are regular visitors, and they consider Chess Records a second home. Recently, Beyoncé and Alicia Keys stopped by the studio, on separate occasions, to give talks to young musicians about the business side of the music industry. The list of musical geniuses that swing by Chess Records to pay their respects or mentor the next wave of serious music lovers is impressive. You might just bump into one of them if you time it right!
Whether you are a resident or visitor to Chicago, you will be moved deeply by a tour of Chess Records. The hallowed halls gave birth to the kings and queens of the blues and rock ‘n roll. A small donation ($10) is all that you need to soak up the history of one of the best musical museums in the world.
I enjoyed Keith Dixon’s stories about all of the famous artists, their recordings, and visits. I loved touching Willie Dixon’s bass and the original studio instruments. The history behind the exceptional acoustics is fascinating.
During summer beginning in June, drop by the Blues Heaven Foundation for its garden concert series on Thursday evenings.
Since my visit to Chess Records, the world lost Chuck Berry, the father of rock ‘n roll. Read Buddy Guy’s memories of Chuck Berry in this Billboard on-line article.