Chess records icon Bobby Rush takes part in Chi-Town Blues Fest

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Bobby Rush | NWI Times | tc047

“I been playin’ the blues for a long time now. I started playin’ the blues in the early 1950s,” said Bobby Rush, a performer on the Star Plaza all-star bill and one of the cornerstones of the vintage Chess Records sound in Chicago. Rush is one of last living musicians who recorded for the groundbreaking Chess label, the musical home to the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and others.

Rush came to Chicago by way of Arkansas and Mississippi in the 1950s for three reasons. He had family in the city, he was looking for work and he wanted to play the blues in the same town where Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Willie Dixon were playing it. “I got here and I couldn’t believe I could actually make some money doing something I would have done for free,” he said. “I got paid to play the blues. There was nothing better than that for me.”

As part of the Chess Records dynasty, Rush has many stories to share with his fans. Ones he shared during his chat with The Times included how he picked up a young singer named Etta James when she came to Chicago and drove her to the Chess offices to meet owners Leonard and Phil Chess and begin her career. He also told how Freddy King and Luther Allison were both guitar players in his early band, how he and King came to accidentally “steal” a song from iconic Chicago bluesman Magic Sam for King Records. Then there are stories about Elmore James, Pinetop Perkins and other giants of the blues’ old-guard.

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The Chess radio station reaches 50

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Chicago Tribune | tc048

When Leonard and Phil Chess bought WHFC-AM 1450 in 1963, their goal was to promote Chess Records, renaming the outlet WVON — for Voice of the Negro. With just 1,000 watts of power, the station surprised everyone by becoming a broadcast sensation, indeed giving voice to a culture and community otherwise marginalized on the airwaves. Though music dominated — thanks to blues records from Pervis Spann and R&B tracks from Herb Kent and others — Wesley South’s legendary “Hot Line” talk show crackled with political discussion.

The rise of FM radio in the 1970s, however, reduced WVON’s audience and clout, precipitating several changes of ownership and shifts of position on the dial. WVON never quite recaptured the enormous audience of its past, but in 1986 it switched to a talk format that reclaimed Chicago’s imagination.

Chicago Tribune

Morris Pejoe

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Morris Pejoe LP cover | tc049

One of the lesser known artistes who recorded for Chess in the early days, Pejas Morris (Morris Pejoe) was born in 1924 and died on 27 July 1982. Originally a violinist, he began playing guitar in the late 1940s. His wife was the blues singer Mary Lane. Their children Lynne Lane and her son Morris Pejoe Jr. are also blues singers.

Elmore James

Elmore James | Public domain | tc050

Elmore James was born on January 27, 1918 and died on May 24, 1963 of a heart attack just before he was due to tour Europe. He is famed for his stirring delivery and amplification. James served with the US Navy in World War 2, taking part in the invasion of Guam. He started recording in 1951, and his famous “Dust My Broom” was first recorded in 1952. He became hugely influential with many bluesmen and rock guitarists citing him as their major influence. He recorded for Chess Records in 1960.

Sugar Boy Crawford

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Sugar Boy Crawford | Wireimage | tc051

James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, Jr. was born on October 12, 1934 and died on September 15, 2012. Based in New Orleans, he originally signed to Chess as an instrumentalist playing trombone. His best known song Jock a mo was recorded by Chess in 1954. In 1963 a severe beating by state troopers incapacitated him for two years and he quit the music business, although he made some guest appearances later in his life. He became a building engineer, and later ran a locksmith business. In 1984 he met Benny Goodman’s brother, Gene, who offered to help him recover his royalties for Jock-A-Mo.

Daily Telegraph obituary

Blue Smitty

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Claude Smith | Jim O’Neal | tc052

Claude “Blue Smitty” Smith was born on November 6 1924. The details of his death are unknown. Smith is thought to have taught Muddy Waters, already an accomplished slide guitar player, how to finger the fretboard of his instrument. He was one of the original session players for Chess.

Percy Mayfield

Percy Mayfield | Public Domain | tc053

Percy Mayfield was born on August 12, 1920 and died on August 11, 1984. Mainly famous for a song writer (“Hit the road Jack”, “The Rivers’ Invitation” are two of his many successful songs), he was also a highly regarded rhythm and blues singer with a sophisticated, smooth style and a fine singing voice. He was badly injured in a car crash in 1952 which left him with permanent facial damage.