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Phil Chess, founder of storied blues record label, dies in Tucson at 95

The man who distributed such ground-breaking classics as "Roll Over Beethoven," "I'm a Man" and "Smokestack Lightning" died at his Tucson home Wednesday. Phil Chess, who brought the world Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Etta James and other blue and R&B stars who paved the way for rock'n'roll, was 95.

Chess's death was confirmed by his nephew, Craig Glicken, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

With his brother, Leonard, Chess purchased a small Chicago record label in 1950, renaming it Chess Records.

That company specialized in what was then called "race music," releasing legendary songs by, among others, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Etta James, Elmore James and Buddy Guy.

Wednesday, Guy told the Sun-Times that "Phil and Leonard Chess were cuttin' the type of music nobody else was paying attention to – Muddy, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy, Jimmy Rogers, I could go on and on – and now you can take a walk down State Street today and see a portrait of Muddy that's 10 stories tall. The Chess Brothers had a lot to do with that. They started Chess Records and made Chicago what it is today, the Blues capital of the world. I'll always be grateful for that."

Leonard Chess died in 1969, just after the company started by the Polish immigrants was sold.

The Chess brothers were inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1995, and recognized with a Trustees Award by the Recording Academy in 2013.

From the Sun-Times:

Roger Ebert, the late Chicago Sun-Times film critic and blogger, once summarized the power and influence of Chess this way: "The former studios of Chess Records on South Michigan in Chicago are as important to the development of rock 'n' roll as the Sun Records in Memphis. You could make a good case, in fact, that without Chess there might have been no Sun, and without Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, there might have been no Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis or Carl Perkins. Rock 'n' roll flowed directly, sometimes almost note by note, from rhythm and blues."

Ebert was writing about the 2010 film "Who do You Love," which told the improbable story of the Chess brothers, or "how two Jewish immigrant kids from Poland sold the family junkyard to start a music club on the black South Side and helped launch the musical styles that have influenced everything since."

The genesis of Chess Records was dramatized in the 2008 movie "Cadillac Records," featuring Beyonce, Adrien Brody, Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright.

The Rolling Stones made an early pilgrimage to Chess and used the studio's address for the name of a 1965 instrumental, "2120 S. Michigan Avenue."

The building was designated a Chicago city landmark in 1990.

Chess helped produce what some consider the first rock record: 1951's "Rocket '88," by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, which included a young Ike Turner.

From the Recording Academy:

In his autobiography, Life, Keith Richards described the day he met Mick Jagger on a train station platform in 1961. What he noticed first were the records young Jagger was carrying. "Did we hit it off?" Richards wrote. "You get in a carriage with a guy that's got Rockin' At The Hops by Chuck Berry on Chess Records, and The Best Of Muddy Waters also under his arm, you are gonna hit it off. He's got Henry Morgan's treasure."

To the rest of the world, that was what the music recorded in Chicago at 2120 South Michigan Avenue and released on the Chess label became — precious, hidden riches. But to Polish immigrants Leonard and Phil Chess, the company hardly started out looking to change the world.

Chess Records began when their liquor store did well enough to bankroll a nightclub, which led to recording some local musicians on a label initially called Aristocrat. A few jazz singles didn't sell, so they gave a shot to a blues singer who had made the journey up north from Mississippi, figuring some of the other Southern transplants might be eager for a down-home sound.

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That singer's name was Muddy Waters; his breakthrough hit, 1948's "I Can't Be Satisfied," sold out in a matter of hours. Aristocrat was soon renamed Chess Records, and what would be called "America's greatest blues label" was off and running, creating a foundation for a global music revolution.

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Phil Chess, co-founder of Chess Records, gives the signal to kick off a recording session with Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Bo Diddley.

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