Leonard Chess was born Lejzor Czyz in Motal, Poland, in 1917. In 1928, his family moved to New York and then to Chicago, where his father was in the liquor business. The family’s name was changed to Chess, and Lejzor became Leonard.
In his early twenties, Leonard and his brother Phil became active in the South Side of Chicago’s nightclub scene. Eventually, they began running a series of jazz clubs, including the Macamba Lounge. In 1947, Leonard began working with Aristocrat Records, and eventually he and his brother took control of the label and began focusing on blues music. In 1950, they renamed the company Chess Records. The first Chess release was saxophonist Gene Ammons’ version of “My Foolish Heart,” which became a hit. They followed that release with Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone.”
The brothers then contacted Sam Phillips at Sun Records, asking him to help them find and sign roots artists from the South. Phillips licensed Chess recordings by Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas and Doctor Ross, among others. Through the Fifties, Chess signed a mind-boggling flood of blues, R&B and rock and roll artists, including Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Chuck Berry, the Moonglows and the Flamingos. While Phil focused on jazz, Leonard honed in on roots music, making Chess the greatest repository of blues music by the late Fifties.
In the Sixties, Chess roster expanded to include Etta James, Fontella Bas, Little Milton, Koko Taylor and Laura Lee. The label also spawned such subsidiary labels as Checker, Argo and Cadet. Chess not only became the true repository of American blues music, but it also presented black music for the edification of white audiences throughout the world.
Leonard Chess died of a heart attack on October 16, 1969. As rock historian John Broven wrote, “Leonard Chess was the dynamo behind Chess Records, the label that, along with Atlantic and Sun, has come to epitomize the independent record business. . . . Leonard Chess set new standards for the industry in artist development, deal making, networking and marketing and promotion.”