Last April, I was in Chicago for a few days and I had a chance to swing by one of the holy places of music: Chess Records.
To be more accurate, I visited Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, which is dedicated to the preservation of the history of blues music. The Blues Heaven foundation lives in the former site of Chess Records.
Chess Records was founded in 1950, and was located initially at several different locations. The main offices moved to 2120 S. Michigan Ave around 1957, staying there until 1965. Chess Records is where Chuck Berry recorded Johnny B. Goode. Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, and some other lesser-known acts like the Rolling Stones recorded there.
There is still a functioning studio in the building- Chess Studios continued beyond Chess Records, and the Rolling Stones and other bands also recorded here. Marie Dixon, Willie’s widow, purchased the building in 1993 and reopened it a few years later as the Blues Heaven Foundation. The Blues Heaven Foundation does four tours a day from Tuesday to Saturday. The tours are inexpensive and well worth a look. While you wait for the tour to start, there’s a gallery filled with artifacts that will fascinate anyone who loves the blues.
The red dress in the gallery above was work by Koko Taylor, often referred to as the Queen of the Blues. Willie Dixon brought her to Chess Records in 1964, where she recorded Wang Dang Doodle. Here’s a slightly more recent recording of Koko just killing it live.
I happened to be there on an auspicious day- the Blues Foundation was opening a new exhibit about the blues festivals that Willie Dixon organized in Germany throughout the 1960s The gentleman in the hat in this photo is the son of Willie Dixon, on hand for the opening of the new exhibit. If I remember correctly, the other fellow was a representative from the German embassy.
Finally, it was time for the tour!
The absolute highlight of the tour was spending time in this room- the main studio. Countless legendary recordings were made here, like this one: