THE EVOLUTIONARY HISTORY of American vernacular music over the last half-century-plus has often hinged on entrepreneurs who hung out in the shadows between mainstream culture and its marginal cousins. In ways they didn't intend, these businessmen became mediators, even advocates, for cultural outsiders.
Take black musicians. They had limited opportunities at major labels (where they, like other ethnic and regional groups, were usually cordoned into “race” and specialty record lines), major booking agencies, and major venues. And so again and again, small labels offering blues or rhythm and blues or gospel, black-driven musical formats not plugged into mass-market distribution pipelines, popped up across postwar America. The label heads, almost all of them white, had individual motives, of course, but most shared a vision of potentially profitable niche markets going untapped.
Such were the Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil, who after World War II started what became Chess Records. Born in Poland, the boys emigrated to America with their family in 1922, and grew up in Chicago. Though they kept links to their Jewish heritage, their businesses—a junk store, a couple of liquor stores—moved them steadily into the tangle of racial and ethnic relations that crisscrosses American culture like fault lines.
In 1946, Leonard, the elder dominant Chess brother, took over a bar in one of the black Chicago neighborhoods filling with southern migrants. The liquor license was in Phil's name. Like other tavern owners, the brothers saw that live bands drew customers, that there was money to be made in black music and its audience—and that idea shaped the rest of their lives. They improvised shrewd, streetwise business tactics, and they learned fast. By the time Leonard died of a heart attack in 1969, at age 52, he and Phil owned several record labels, a recording studio, a record distributor, a couple of music publishers, two radio stations, and a batch of real estate. More important, they had recorded more than their fair share of the best and most influential sounds of the postwar era.