Leonard and his brother Phil were involved in the black nightclub scene on the South Side of Chicago by 1947. They soon became associated with Aristocrat Records, and moved the company away from black pop and jazz and closer to pure blues music with artists such as Muddy Waters, Sunnyland Slim and Willie Dixon. Leonard Chess himself played bass drum on one of Muddy Waters's early sessions. In 1948, the Chess brothers took control of the company and in 1950 renamed it Chess Records. "My Foolish Heart" (Gene Ammons), "Rollin' Stone" (Muddy Waters) and "That's All Right" (Jimmy Rogers) showcased the company's new direction.
During the Chess heyday, the early recordings of an acoustic Robert Johnson morphed into the electric adventures of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Howlin' Wolf. This music in turn was embraced by young musicians in England, and eventually brought home to the U.S. as the '60s kids flipped out over remakes of early Chess hits by The Rolling Stones, among others.
What was it all about? Here's Howlin' Wolf doing Smokestack Lightning:
Here's Muddy singing a Willie Dixon song:
And here's Willie:
But Chess's biggest hit was arguably the first true 'crossover' recording, a song that made it up high on both Pop & R'n'B charts:
The song became James's signature song and was the third in a string of successful songs from her Chess Records debut album At Last!. Upon the song's release in April 1961, it became her second number 2 R&B hit and crossed over to pop radio, reaching number 47 on the Billboard Hot 100. Despite its rather low pop chart standing, the song is well-known and is still played regularly on oldies radio stations.