Run by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, the company produced and released many important singles and albums, which are now regarded as central to the rock music canon. Musician and critic Cub Koda described Chess Records as "America's greatest blues label."
Chess Records was based at several different locations on the south side of Chicago, Illinois, the most famous being at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue from c. 1956 to c. 1965., immortalized by British rock group The Rolling Stones in their song "2120 South Michigan", which was an instrumental recorded at that address during their first U.S. tour in 1964. The Rolling Stones would record at Chess Studios two more times. This building is now home to Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation.
Leonard bought a stake in a record company called Aristocrat Records in 1947; in 1950 Leonard brought his brother Phil into the operation and they became sole owners of the company and renamed it Chess Records.In 1952 the brothers started Checker Records, as an alternative label for radio play (radio stations would only play a limited number of records for any one imprint). In December 1956 they launched a jazz label called Marterry, which was quickly renamed Argo Records. Argo changed its name in 1965 to Cadet Records to end confusion with an older British classical music label named Argo. There was also Cadet Concept records, for rock and more adventurous music, such as the Rotary Connection, and the now-infamous experimental psychedelic Electric Mud album by Muddy Waters.
During the 1950s, Leonard and Phil Chess handled most of the production. They brought in legendary producer Ralph Bass in 1960 to handle the gospel and some of the blues singers. Bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon was also heavily involved in production for the label, and is now credited retroactively as a producer on some re-releases. During the 1960s, the Chess' A&R man and chief producer was Roquel "Billy" Davis.
The company was also briefly run by Marshall Chess, son of Leonard, in his position as vice president between January and October, 1969, and as president following the acquisition by GRT at that time, before he went on to found Rolling Stones Records.
In 1969 the Chess brothers sold the label to General Recorded Tape (GRT) for $6.5 million. In October 1969 Leonard Chess died, and by 1972 the only part of Chess Records still operating in Chicago was the recording studio. GRT had moved the label to New York City, operating it as a division of Janus Records. Under GRT, Chess effectively vanished as an important force in the recording industry. In August 1975, GRT sold what remained of Chess Records to All Platinum Records. In the early eighties, noticing the unavailability of the Chess catalog, Marshall Chess was able to convince The Robinson family, who owned All Platinum, to reissue the catalog themselves under his supervision (All Platinum had been licensing selected tracks out to other companies). The reissued singles and LPs sold well, but by the mid eighties All Platinum fell into financial difficulties, and the Chess master recordings were eventually acquired by MCA Records, which itself was in turn later merged into Universal Music imprint Geffen Records. In the 2000s Universal's limited-edition reissue label, Hip-O Select, began releasing a series of comprehensive box sets devoted to such Chess artists as Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.
Chess Records appears to be the subject of two films to be released in 2008, Cadillac Records and Who Do You Love. In addition to the Chess brothers, both films feature portrayals of or based on Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, and Etta James. Cadillac Records was directed by Darnell Martin and features an ensemble cast including Adrien Brody, Beyoncé Knowles and Jeffrey Wright. Who Do You Love was directed by Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks and stars Alessandro Nivola playing Leonard Chess "as a complicated, driven man, hard on both his musicians and his family, yet with a real love for some of America's greatest music." The latter film's world premiere was at the Toronto International Film Festival, September 11, 2008.