Chicago Trip: Chess Records

Chess Records put out some of my favorite records by Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Etta James, etc. To stand where many of those great recordings were hashed out was the experience of a lifetime. The building was sold in 1969 but was saved from destruction by Chess chief songwriter and bassist Willie Dixon's family and is now the headquarters for Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation.

Work is being done to restore the space back to a working studio; much like Sun. In the interim you are able to walk the second floor tracking, rehearsal and control room. Downstairs, display cases of Chess mementos (Grammy Awards, Koko Taylor's blingin' dress, etc.) fill what used to be the record shipping room. Both Leonard and Phil Chess' offices are also open for exploration and in the warmer months they host live music in the adjoining park outside.

The tour could benefit from some structure and contextual information. We were allowed to stroll freely, and left to watch an aging VHS with bad tracking problems. The video had some great interviews and performances, but did little to explain the whole Chess story. [The BBC documentary below does a bit more.]

The experience was bittersweet as I left feeling that more could be done to preserve this historic recording studio. But at the same time it's just a physical space. There are the Chess Records of today that people will be talking about in 50 years but all that matters is that the music lives on, and there is certainly no fear of the that.