A Visit To Chess Records…And When Muddy Waters Met The Rolling Stones

Chicago 2120 South Michigan Avenue Chess Records Studio Willie Dixon Blues Foundation

2120 South Michigan Aveue

2120 South Michigan Avenue was immortalised in song by the Rolling Stones in their 5×5 EP (recently re-released on Record Store Day) and was the headquarters and recording studio of Chess Records.

It is worth listing just a few of the songs recorded at this studio, because that list is like a lesson in American music. Not a dull lesson with a fusty old teacher droning on whilst listlessly scrawling chalk on a board, dreaming of gin and tonic. A vibrant, fun and energising lesson packed with great songs and soaking in the social history of America.

Chicago 2120 South Michigan Avenue Chess Records Studio

Muddy Waters‘ declaration that he was tired of the racial epithet of “boy” surfaced as he roared “I’m a Man!” in “Mannish Boy” – as powerful a song as you’ll ever hear. Etta James sang “At Last” at Chess Record Studios. Chuck Berry introduced us to “Johnny B. Goode” here. Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightnin’, the wonderful “Rescue Me” by Fontella Bass – even John Lee Hooker managed “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” at 2120 South Michigan Avenue. Many classic songs recorded here were written or part written by Willie Dixon who was an important part of the Chess Records story, and who wrote Little Red Rooster (#1 hit for the Rolling Stones) and Bring It On Home and You Need Love, both of which were covered by Led Zeppelin – the latter forming the basis of Whole Lotta Love. Great grooves, all.

A ten minute taxi ride from Downtown Chicago, the studio was a must-see attraction when I had a recent stop-over in the Windy City (you can keep your weird “Chicago mix” of cheese and caramel Garrett’s popcorn, Chicago: Chess Records is what you should be telling people about). It is now the headquarters of The Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation, and a museum.

Chicago 2120 S. Michigan Avenue Chess Records Studio

In his biography, Keith Richards described Chess records as “hallowed ground” and the “perfect recording studio”. In a two day break on their first US tour The Rolling Stones recorded fourteen songs, including their first #1 hit, “It’s All Over Now”. The first ever version of “Satisfaction” (an acoustic version) was also recorded here, a few weeks before the final, fuzz-toned single was cut.

Richards describes the famous moment that the Rolling Stones first visited Chess: “We walked into Chess Studios and there’s this guy in black overalls painting the ceiling. And it’s Muddy Waters and he’s got whitewash streaming down his face and he’s on top of a ladder. Marshall Chess says “Oh, we never had him painting”. But Marshall was a boy then, he was working in the basement. And also Bill Wyman tells me he actually remembers Muddy Waters taking our amplifiers from the car into the studio. Whether he was being a nice guy or he wasn’t selling records then, I know what the Chess brothers were bloody well like – if you want to stay on the payroll get to work.”

Chicago 2120 Michigan Avenue Chess Records Studio Willie Dixon Blues Foundation

A Muddy Waters Tour Jacket

Another version of the story has Waters look at the Stones, laughing and saying, “I like what you boys are doing with my music.” Whilst perhaps apocryphal this is nevertheless a great story.

For my visit, sadly, there were no blues legends doing a spot of decorating, but I was greeted by the friendly Kevin, who started my tour by playing a DVD of the history of the blues – and of the studio. It features Buddy Guy and Little Walter, the latter of which was the inspirational harmonica player in Muddy Waters’ band.

Chicago 2120 Michigan Avenue Chess Records Studio Willie Dixon Blues Foundation

It features Willie Dixon and Koko Taylor who explains how Dixon first sang her Wang Dang Doodle. One of Koko’s dresses stands quietly in a corner next to a copy of one of her records.

Leonard Chess explains how he created an echo – not by effect boxes, but by the careful placement of two microphones. John Lee Hooker plays Boom Boom on an out of tune unplugged guitar. In the meantime, I was distracted by looking all around the room at the displays, of old studio equipment and instruments.

Chicago 2120 S Michigan Avenue Chess Records Studio Willie Dixon Blues Foundation

What is special about the place is its history. Or is it? Why does it have such an illustrious history? It takes a while to notice – but the answer is its careful construction. It is a bit wonky, for want of a better term. There are no parallel surfaces in the room, giving it the unique acoustic quality that drew artists to record here. It has a concrete and cork-lined floor.

Chicago 2120 Michigan Avenue Chess Records Studio Willie Dixon Blues Foundation

Inside the studio

Adjustable panels on the wall could be opened to reduce the “size” of the room to a third of its normal area to suit, say, a smaller group of players. It was all purpose designed by a chap called Jack S. Wiener. There’s more than just history to this – there was something that drew the artists to record there beyond the Chess label run by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess.

Chess Records Recording Studio

The control room, with its large foam-lined (for soundproofing) window into the studio still survives, albeit the mixing desk does not. What we do see is some very old equipment: the original reel to reel recorder is all that survives from the Chess years, but a two track, or perhaps four track console from those times is on display. You can play with these controls and picture Dixon or Guy on the other side of the window singing and playing.

Chicago 2120 Michigan Avenue Chess Records Studio Willie Dixon Blues Foundation

An organ stands at the back – not the Hammond B3 that would have been on the sessions, but a nice Leary donated by a visitor.

Like the blues players it celebrates, 2120 South Michigan Avenue is unique, an important part of our musical heritage, and relies upon the public to just about scrape a living. It is a wonderful thing that it is still standing when so many other old studios have closed down. If it needs another lick of paint, and I’m in the area again, I couldn’t think of a better use of my time. If it’s good enough for Muddy Waters, it’s good enough for me..

Record #187 : A Chess Records Playlist

Sources: Keith Richards: Life



Categories: Blues, Exhibitions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

18 replies

  1. Nice.
    I was actually born in Chicago…’raised in the city streets’. Never been to Chess though.
    Thanks!

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  2. I live in Chicago, my husband plays guitar, and we’ve read so many musician biographies that pay hommage to Chess… but we have never been to Chess. It seems so far away… so much about lore and history. We should pay a visit.

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  3. Hi, My name is Ronnie Haig

    I recorded several times in this great studio in 1958 & 1959. I recorded “Don’t you hear me calling baby”b/w “Travler of love” that wound up on ABC Paramount and many other song also. I also played in Jimmy Coe’s great band that included “Wes Montgomery” on my stuff and backed several other artists on their stuff for “NOTE” records Jack Wiener ( the engineer) was a genius to say the least. (Ask Chuck Berry, he’ll tell you. I’m now 74 and although I’ve been in many studios throughout my career, none have even come close to that of Chess

    Ronnie Haig http://www.rockabillyhall.com/RonnieHaig.html

    Like

    • Hey Ronnie – great to hear from you and thanks for saying hello. Great to have the views of someone who has actually recorded in this legendary studio!

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      • I just watched Cadillac Records on TV and thought it was a great movie. But now that I’m on the internet researching about all of the great people and what an amazing place Chess was. I live in St. Louis and always visit Chicago, but never knew this wonderful place existed. My family and I will make sure to visit on or next trip to Chi Town. Wow a place so awesome is so close by. Thanks for preserving it. And Mr. Haig… wow you are a part of history. Thank you for contributing to the fabric of America. From what I hear Chuck Berry lives down here in the Lou. I’ve worked with his nephew, but never met him. What can I say you guys are awesome. May God Bless you and your families.

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  4. Whew Ronnie Haig my big idol from Indianapolis. I love this artist and write with him
    daily. I have all hiss 45’s and a lotta music on tape,Ronnie did created many many songs and many many good ones also. Yes he’s my big idol and my great friend,there’s a lotta distance between us but my family and hiss are friends forever. Ronnie is more then Rockabilly Ronnie is music !!!
    My star from Indianapolis and not only mine our whole family adores hiss music.
    Treasure this unique artist from Indianapolis named RONNIE HAIG !!

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  5. Interesting post. I enjoyed seeing the equipment used in Chess studios and hearing about the production techniques they used. Legendary label, that’s for sure.

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  6. I remember walking into that great studio that cold day on Febuary 18th 1958 at about 11:00 PM. We entered from the street entrance at 2120 S. Michigan Av in Chicago. The studio was “Chess Studio”
    The first thing we noticed was and incrediblly long, closed, narrow stairway over against the right wall of the main floor which led to a dark hallway on the second floor. By the time I carried my Gold ES295 Gibson (1956) and “Fender Bassman” (1956) Amplifier up those stairs, I wondered if I would ever get my breath or be able to play. The amp was very popular back then. No effects, just 4, 10 inch Jensen speakers powered by 60 magnificent watts of an all tube amplifier. The “Five Stars” and I walked into that studio through two rubber sealed solid doors. One opened out and the other in. The room was awesome. Low ceiling was all accoustic tile, and the floor was 12 inch
    rubber tiles. It was probably 30 feet long by 15 feet wide. At one end was an elevated glass window. Outside the studio there was a rough open stairway that led up to that window as well
    as the engineers room. At that time THERE WERE NO TRACKS. Everything was miked and ran into a hole just below that window and into a giant mixing board. From that board, one single wire went to the “Ampex Half Track Recorder” which had been altered with a capstan that made the recording tape travel at 15 inches per second. Traveling at that speed – you would never miss those crispy sounds of the natural highs of the instuments. There were NO muddy recordings that came out of “Chess”
    In one corner at the far end of the room was a grande piano – and right across from it in the other corner was a complete set of drums.
    Along the wall opposite the entry doors were several baffle like shutters that could be opened to tune the room. That was perfect for the twin saxes we would be using. In the middle of the room was where the stand up bass would be. Next to him was a chair for the rhythm guitar player.
    Me, I would be perched on a wooden stool in front of the bass and rhythm guitar. I played my own lead work. We were all seperated by folding screens like the pretty ladies would hide behind in the old movies when changing clothes. hahaha Everyone wore giant headphones and we never took them off till the recording was done. The genius in the sound room attached two alligator clips to the speaker wires in the back of my amp. He also placed a mike in front – right up next to the grill cloth. He mixed the two sounds and whew! it was beautiful. The “Five Stars” stood up front right below the sound room window and sang through one mike. Now, if you imagine all these wires all over the floor and heading for that hole leading to the mixing board, it was a mess; and you’d best not trip over them. They were all color coded so the engineer would know who was what etc.
    The session began at midnight and went to 6:00 AM.
    I must say – that first night, I got a college education during those 6 hours. You’d better have your act together, because The engineer grabbed all that music and mixed it on the way to the tape recorder. One shot – and that’s it. Hard to forgive a drummer who dropped a stick on an otherwise perfect recording. Or Me either if I dropped my pick or screwed up my lyrics. It all went down at the same time back then. Everything. That’s just the way it was. We cut my first song
    “Don’t you hear me calling Baby” a total of 18 times. Whew! By the time we left there, I hated that song, but I loved the recording.
    Wound up recording 17 songs in that studio. Some were mine – some were me playing on other folks songs, and there were two instrumentals.
    I was 18 years old. I’m now 76 and I’ll never forget even one small detail of that experience, that night at “CHESS”
    * * * * * * * *
    Musicians: Henry Cain (Piano) Wil Scott (Bass) Jimmy Coe (Alto Sax) Pookie Johnson (Tenor sax)
    Wes Montgomery (rhythm Guitar) Earl “Fox” Walker (Drums) and Me playing (Lead Guitar) and vocal.
    “The Five Stars” Jim Bruhn (1st ten) Larry Huffman (2nd ten) Bill Campbell (baratone) and Bruce Miller (Bass) With Ron Russell the usual (lead singer)

    Ronnie Haig
    Welcome, the1haig

    the1Haig@AOL.COM (email address)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great history, great stories! Is it still possible to visit the Chess Studios?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Motown on Thursday, now Chess on Friday! (Went to Sun and Stax two years ago). Great article!

    Liked by 1 person

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