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Marshall Chess talks intimately about the Rolling Stones

Chess worked closely with the Rolling Stones and served as president of the band's records label.
Marshall Chess

Marshall Chess

By Harvey Kubernik

In 2008, music business veteran Marshall Chess concluded a DJ stint on the subscription radio waves, hosting a weekly blues music program exclusively on Sirius Satellite Radio. His “Chess Records Hour” debuted in November 2006 and aired for 81 shows.

In 2010, the legacy of the famed Chess Records label has not been lost on current silver screen movie executives. In late April, the film “Who Do You Love” had been released nationally in theaters.

“Who Do You Love” is directed by Jerry Zaks who helmed the successful “Smokey Joe’s Café” theatrical play that ran from Broadway to the West End last decade spotlighting the songs of the legendary Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller songwriting team.

Keb Mo is the musical director on “Who Do You Love” which stars Alessandro Nivola and Jon Abrahams as Leonard and Phil Chess. David Oyelowo portrays Muddy Waters, Megalyn Ann Echikunwoke attempts a fictional Etta James character, Chi McBride tackles a role as Willie Dixon and musician Robert Randolph has a turn as Bo Diddley.

A film in 2008, “Cadillac Records,” also focused on the remarkable and still influential Chess label now owned and distributed by Universal Music Enterprises.

Marshall Chess, the son of Leonard and nephew of Phil Chess, the dynamic duo who founded the seminal Chicago-based blues label, served as Executive Producer of the Steve Jordan produced soundtrack to the movie “Cadillac Records.” The film featured Oscar-winner (“The Pianist”) Adrian Brody based on Leonard Chess, Jeffrey Wright delivering as Muddy Waters, and Beyonce modeling herself from Etta James, and Mos Def cast as Chuck Berry. Darnell Martin directed the flick.

Chess was born in Chicago, Ill. on March 13, 1942 and was raised during the heyday of the independent record business. Leonard Chess had a piece of a record company named Aristocrat Records in 1947, and later in 1950 he brought his brother Phil into the fold and the brothers assumed sole ownership of the company and renamed it Chess Records.

Marshall “started” in the family business at age seven, initially accompanying his father Leonard on radio station visits. For sixteen years Marshall worked with his dad and his uncle Phil, doing everything from pressing records, applying shrink wrap and loading trucks to producing over 100 Chess Records projects, eventually heading up the label as President after the GRT acquisition in 1969.

Over years the monumental Chess catalog has had various homes, including a 1975 sale to All Platinum Records, and eventually a couple of decades ago the Chess master tapes were purchased by MCA Records, now Universal Music Group.

The UMG label for many years has re-released and issued Chess Records packages, compilations and boxed sets continually manufacturing the product configurations for radio, retail and consumers.

In October 2009, Marshall Chess oversaw the sale of his legendary Arc Music Group, the publishing arm of Chess Records, to Fuji Media Holdings, the parent company of Fuji Entertainment Group who entered into an arrangement created by Opus 19 Music with the Alan Ett Creative Group and Fuji Entertainment Group this past January 2010.

Chess at the time was CEO of Arc and found the right buyer with veteran music publisher Opus 19 president Evan Meadow, who now administers catalogs of some of the greatest classic rock and roll, R & B, gospel, big band, jazz and surf music. Chess will be a consultant to Opus 19.

“Arc is placed with Fuji Entertainment America and Evan Meadow will run it. It’s a bitter sweet feeling,” Marshall Chess admits. “But in life timing is everything. We felt like selling for a while because of the age of my partners. My uncle is almost 90. Gene Goodman is 92 and last weekend he flew to Chicago for the weekend. He’s amazing for 92. Harry Goodman the other partner has been dead since 1991 and his wife has it. She’s a total silent partner. It was time. We’ve had people chasing us since 2001,” he reveals. “We’ve just been waiting for the right buyer. It was the right price with the right respect for the catalog.

From 1970-1978 Marshall Chess worked closely with the Rolling Stones and served as President of their Rolling Stones Records label. During that era their classic “Exile On Main Street” double LP was initially released.

Marshall Chess was taped for the “Stones In Exile” film documentary, “Stones in Exile” that viewed on US Network television and through BBC Worldwide internationally. In June Eagle Rock Entertainment released this DVD item to retail outlets. The “Stones in Exile” documentary is produced by filmmaker John Battsek and directed by Stephen Kijak, who is known for his work on “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man.”

In fall 2010, Eagle Rock will distribute the 1972 Stones’ concert movie, “Ladies and Gentlemen…The Rolling Stones” that Chess produced on DVD.

The following is an interview with Marshall Chess.

In 1970, you started working with the Rolling Stones.
Marshall Chess: I was going to start a record label, and the first act on it was going to be Boz Scaggs. Jann Wenner had produced Boz for Atlantic, it flopped, and I met Boz. I stayed with the Wenners, they took me to see Boz , and Scaggs was going to be the first act on my new label that never happened.

And, while I was trying to get the money together for that label, I got a phone call from another record executive, Bob Krasnow, who ran Blue Thumb Records. At that time Blue Thumb was owned partially by the same people who owned Chess, GRT Tapes. So, Bob Krasnow told me that the Stones’contract with Decca is coming up, they are changing managers. They love Chess Records. I knew ‘em from Chicago and going to London a few times. I thought about it and told Krasnow it wouldn’t work. No, our egos are too big, and I didn’t want any partners. But, I was depressed from doing nothing, so I asked Krasnow, ‘Could I call Mick Jagger?’ Bob gave me Mick’s home number. He answered when I called. I told Mick, “It’s Marshall Chess. Remember me?” “Oh Marshall. How are you?” I told him my life has changed. Chess was sold. I quit and didn’t like working for these corporate people. “I heard your contract was up and your management was changing, and wondered if there was anything we could do together? I’m ready to rock. I’m doin’ nothing.”

“Oh, that would be great, and I’d go to Chicago to see you but I have a problem with my passport. I can’t leave the country.’

A couple of weeks later I went to London. When I went there, I had a great meeting with Mick in which he was actually dancing to “Black Snake Blues” by Clifton Chenier while we were talking. It was in his place and he kept moving. It made me nervous. (laughs). And Clifton was on Chess. Mick had a great big pile of albums and we talked. Then I met Keith that week, and Gram Parsons was with Keith, that was my first meeting with them.

Then they took me down to a rehearsal hall in East London and we all went down there and they had the “Electric Mud” poster in the rehearsal room. That blew me away. And, I had done “Let’s Spend The Night Together” on that album, one of their songs covered by Muddy Waters. I saw that poster and said. “Hmmm. This is good, especially after all the criticism I got from that album.” I was used to being around artists and was very comfortable.

Then I told them the truth that I was going to start a record label, and I’ll need to know in a couple of weeks if you want to do something. And, basically, at the last night, of the last day, they sent me a telegram to come to London, to construct a deal.

I worked on “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” It wasn’t lost on me that ‘Carol’ and ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ were done on that tour. I love that shit. I was always a Stones’ fan. I was already there. I helped put it together and deliver it to London Decca. We did that famous meeting with “Cocksucker Blues” being played. End of that contract.

You were heavily involved in securing a new record and distribution deal for the Stones with Atlantic Records.
Chess: We formed Rolling Stones Records. I met their guy Prince Rupert Lowenstein, who they just hired to get their financial shit straight. Then we had to make a record deal. I knew Ahmet Ertegun. He was at my Bar Mitzvah. We had talked to a few other labels, too. Mick talked to Clive Davis when he was at Columbia.

I got a lot of letters from label presidents. This is before faxes. Everyone wanted them. The lawyers took some of the phone calls. This was the first time Prince Rupert Lowenstein was in the entertainment world. I introduced him to the firm who became our lawyers. They liked Atlantic. Before Atlantic, the problem with the Stones in the past was that they couldn’t get a worldwide synergy and they’d sell big, but not as big as they could have. I knew Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun my whole life. We were very close. Ahmet called me initially. Mick, Keith and Charlie were very partial to Ahmet.

Ahmet had a very winning personality with artists. And the Stones were very much into people connected to history. They wanted Ahmet. Then we began to negotiate the deal. I can remember to this day Ahmet had his in- house lawyer at Atlantic and Prince Rupert. Mick wasn’t at any of the meetings. Then Ahmet starts coming up with costs. It was one of my better moments negotiating. Chess was a full service company. We owned our own record pressing plant, printing, mastering, and plating. We did it all in one building. I knew what it cost to make a record. So, Ahmet did not. Neither did his lawyer. Not at all. No idea. They were a different kind of company. They were in offices, outside pressers. They are still on Broadway and before WEA. I can remember and it’s one of my best visuals. Ahmet starts sweating and he pulled out his thousand dollar white handkerchief. I told him the deal did not make sense. And I ended up getting a clean net royalty of a dollar per album. I believe it was the highest royalty in history. And they agreed. And Ahmet and the Prince became real tight.

Before the deal was signed, we all came out to L.A. The Stones and Mick. We always stayed at The Beverly Hills Hotel. Ahmet had a bungalow and so did I. WEA was going to be started. (Chairman) Steve Ross came by. Ahmet wanted me to meet him because it was such a big deal. We were standing in the shallow end of the swimming pool and he asked me about the Rolling Stones. “I know you’re coming.” I gave him my view that to me they were the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band and I felt with the right coordination between WEA we could easily make them into worldwide super stars. It wasn’t a hard pitch. He wanted to hear my confidence more than anything. That was it. Prince Rupert, Ahmet, a social kind of thing. The final celebration to the signing.

Ahmet is dead now but to me he was always like an extraordinary egomaniac. Jerry (Wexler) and Nesuhi didn’t want the spotlight. Ahmet Ertegun…We lost a great record man with Ahmet. A super f**kin’ great record man. I mean, he covered the full spectrum, from the earliest Be Bop all the way up to the current day.

I will say Ahmet’s brother Nesuhi Ertegun, who gets way underplayed, the way they don’t talk about my Uncle Phil and just my father Leonard. Both of them were keys. Nesuhi was key to Atlantic, and they would not have been as good or near as good without Nesuhi, and nor would have Chess without my Uncle Phil. They always underplay these guys. Nesuhi ran WEA, the international side of that, and that was the first total synergy network, so when we released the Stones’ albums, it was a wave across the world. Global synergy. We timed it. We planned it. We had global distribution and we released it as a wave of publicity. With them we had the first totally coordinated world release. We could tour and the record was released the same day.

It was a whole new world for you.
Chess: In the beginning I had to rethink my whole life. I used to wake up in the morning and go to work from 9:30 in the morning to 7:30 at night. All of a sudden I’m with guys who wanted meetings at 11:00 at night. They were waking up at 3:00 in the afternoon. I came from a creative freedom. It was exactly the same. Now rather than focusing on a 12 album release, I was focused on one album, ‘Sticky Fingers.’

I think the label should be close to the artist. Even on a label like Chess, we were close, not to every artist, but a lot of them, we really were close. But the Stones were another thing. They became part of my life. At Chess no artist was part of my life. We were close to them. Like relatives. With the Stones I was family. And I felt it. They accepted me and I embraced it. It had a lot to do with my own psychological makeup. Because subconsciously I was really upset that Chess Records had been sold. And it wasn’t left to me and I felt really ripped off. My father had died. I had a lot of problems that I had buried and the Stones were a great way to forget about them. I was having a ball. Swinging London with the Rolling Stones. All of a sudden I had ten million people kissing my arse and following me.

You were a central figure in the 1970 design and implementation of the Stones’ lip-and-tongue logo. Now in 2008, the original artwork now resides in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Victoria Broakes, head of exhibitions for the museum’s theater and performance collections said the acquisition “is one of the first examples of a group using branding, and it has become arguably the world’s most famous rock logo.”
Chess: Yes. I was completely involved in the development. In fact, my memory is that we knew we needed a logo for the label, and we’re in Rotterdam, Holland, and I was in Amsterdam. I was driving to Rotterdam, a couple of hours ride. I stopped to get gas at a Shell Gas station. In Chicago, Shell had the yellow shell, and it spelled SHELL underneath. But, in Europe it didn’t say that. It was just the logo alone. That’s how strong their logo was. Remember, this is in Holland where Shell comes from. So, when I got to Rotterdam that night, we were sitting around, smoking joints, whatever, ‘Here’s the idea for the logo. It has to be strong enough to work without any print.’ That was where the idea came from.

We hired many artists. I don’t exactly remember exactly where we came up with the tongue and lips, but we came up with the idea sitting around bullshitting, and I hired many different artists to draw many different versions. We had tongues waiving, tongues sticking up, different shaped lips, and a tongue with a pill on it. And then I remember buying it. We bought it out right from a London art student artist named John Pasche. And, it was before compact discs, so the only place it said Rolling Stone Records we would inscribe it on the master on the edge around the label. I was also involved with the Prince, and the lawyers on the formation of the companies. I was around for all of it. The founding of the label. When I think of the debut album, “Sticky Fingers,” I think of “Brown Sugar.” The album cover, too. The album was a hot rock ‘n’ roll album with a great engineer. They were starting their new thing, new label, hot cover, new energy.

Here I was at Olympic Studio with Glyn Johns ordering Indian food which I had never had in my life. It was like going to another planet for me. Olympic was a symphony orchestra room. They were in a little corner. I got to know Glyn and watched his technique and the way he recorded. “Sticky Fingers” was more an observation for me. I was not sure what my place was. To this day I still get into a very good altered state when I get into a recording studio. I’ve always had. The concentration for a few hours and get really in a place that I can’t get in other places. I began to get that way with the Stones and went every night. I went to the studio a lot.

When I heard “Brown Sugar…” Amazing rock ‘n’ roll. Just makes you grin. Then you get this confidence that ‘I’m gonna have a number one record.’ You get it. Then you call Ahmet. “It’s a motherfucker we did last night!” The energy starts building. You hold the phone up and give ‘em a hit. Then the cover ideas. It becomes your life. I’m not making any suggestions on “Sticky Fingers.” I’m keeping my mouth shut and I’m listening. I’m going to FM radio stations and living in London. Laying the groundwork.

The band I saw live in 1971, the Marquee shows, was a different band from 1969. It expanded. The response from the audience. You listen to it and then see the results from it…Even in 1972 in New York at Madison Square Garden the place would shake.

Chess Records and the Rolling Stones are the most important things in my life. Things that came to me. It doesn’t blow my mind that the Stones have their own channel on Sirius. They are my favorite band. That’s a great chapter in my life. I love them. They remind me of the feelings that I get at Chess. They become one when they play and when I worked with them. My job at Rolling Stones Records was to get the music out. I did what I did very much at Chess what I did with them. “Exile On Main Street” is the greatest. It holds up very well. There’s alchemy there. The way we recorded it. The magic…

What I noticed about the Rolling Stones later was that even though they were using multi-track they were so locked in this kind of magical way. When we did the rhythm tracks it was basically mono. It didn’t matter. Even though they were on separate tracks they were locked. We didn’t have to correct. Keith sometimes f**ked with Bill’s bass but they didn’t have too.

The alchemy that made a lot of Chess records great was bubbling strong during “Exile.” We would have this big meal every day around 4:00 or 5:00 o’clock and get buzzed and then work all night in different rooms in the basement in France. And somehow people locked together and created an atmosphere of… There was an ingredient in that alchemy that made it a great record. It was a double album and it never entered our minds if it would be difficult to run to radio with it. We recorded and we recorded and it just turned out to be a double album.

I remember taking “Tumblin’ Dice” to radio and it was called “Good Time Women.” My favorite cut. “Exile” was great and we had to build a whole mobile f**kin truck.

I didn’t encourage them to make “Exile” a double album but I encouraged them to keep recording. It became a very interesting set up with the truck, different rooms, the basement. A unique experience. You go into the recording truck and you know this is going to work.

We’re in France and two thirds done and we took a break and I went to London for a meeting at Rupert’s house. In the sitting area, beautiful carpets. We all got served tea. Then Rupert started with, “Marshall, you’ve spent two hundred thousand dollars, flying to France, building a kitchen, and it’s too much and we don’t have a budget for this.” All of a sudden, Keith, who is obviously in some form inebriated, says, “Whatever Marshall says we’re gonna go with.” And he’s spilling this tea on a forty thousand dollar carpet. And Rupert…It was a moment from a Woody Allen movie, you know. And that was it. They overruled him. It was sultry nights at this big mansion with rock ‘n’ roll playing. It became like living in a bubble.

You went to the sessions all the time?
Chess: I was involved at this time in tweaking. “Less bass here.” Some sequencing. I am hearing fantastic sounds. It was locked together.

The songwriting used to mystify me. Because some songs would have rough lyrics, and then make a track, and come go back and come back with new lyrics. Sometimes Keith would write all the lyrics. You never knew. Then Mick would write everything. You never knew. One some tracks we used to use Nicky Hopkins. When they would get stuck they would bring in a keyboard player in and it would change everything. The whole rhythm section. It depended on who wrote the song. Did the lyric come before the track, or did the track come first? Then they would disappear and write separately.

How much did Los Angeles and Hollywood contribute to “Exile?”
Chess: Every location contributed. We went around the world. Munich. Jamaica was amazing. Environment amazingly contributed to every album. Totally. Not just one night. We used to go for two months and then book the studio for 24 hours. You got immersed in it. And it changes things. Of course it does. Even the temperature.
“One of the best things I ever got from the Stones, Mick, Keith was being in the studio in those mental states of history. An individual song changes the meditation in a way. The different rhythm changes what it does to you. Great music, man. It’s got that magic. When it happens you have to look back. There’s something about “Exile.” It has magic and goes deep into people’s psyches.

I was concerned about the retail pricing all the time. We had meetings and discussions with Atlantic sales people. I knew how to do this. I was a record man. I was involved with the cover and the manufacturing. The whole thing. The record came right out of the shoot. There was pressure and excitement when “Exile” came out and then it started to explode up the charts. For a record guy like me to see that happening, along with the tour… The band started growing.

The songs became bigger on stage. In 1972 we started the U.S. tour on the West Coast. Actually, my main memory was in 1973, on the tour of England and Europe where I played trumpet on eight shows. And I played conga drums, too, on a couple of shows in 1972 in Boston. We were touring with Wonderlove’s horn section. I was a trumpet player, and this is part of my history I don’t really talk about much. What happened, was that I watched the film “From Here To Eternity” when I was a kid. When they played taps in that movie I got tremendously affected. It was probably the first time I felt music in my heart. I became a bugler in the boy scouts. True thing. I was 13.

At 14 I went to South Shore High school on the Southside of Chicago. And I began to study trumpet. I loved it. I would walk three times a week on the railroad tracks trying to keep my balance on one track trying to keep my balance on one track with my trumpet for lessons. When I was 15 years old, I got called into a room with my father and my grandfather, and my uncle, they said, “Marshall. You shouldn’t be a musician. It is not a good road to follow. Musicians’ lives are shit” They were in that era. “Don’t be a musician. Go in the record business. This is for you. Be a record producer. Be anything, this is not good.” Unfortunately, I followed their advice. I’m very happy now. Maybe I would have made it…

On stage the Stones have the alchemy, the magic of becoming one. Check me out. When bands lock together, and become as one, it’s much greater than any individual. It becomes a very magical thing. Music is a very magical thing. Music can conjure up magic, and they, by not on purpose, by fate, chance, whatever you want to call it, they make magic sometimes. And not every time they play. But they make it on their records, they make it live. Even when they played badly, people get carried away with it. I’ve seen that one. I used to tour with them. Keith… Just a brilliant intellect. Mick, Keith and Charlie have a fantastic intellect. They were very responsible, a Jewish kid from the suburbs of Chicago, even though I knew about black culture, their intellect, and the people they attracted around them, I’m talking about Andy Warhol, Robert Frank, all those people that I met through them. Rudolph Nureyev.

They opened up a whole world of oriental carpets of museums, things that I barely knew about. Producer Jimmy Miller was a wonderful guy. I loved him. I was in Jamaica for “Goat’s Head Soup.” Great songs on that album. A great period. The effect of being thrown out of England, we were living in different places but when we came to record we would get totally absorbed with the atmosphere. It wasn’t that “Goat’s Head Soup” recording in Jamaica then made it a reggae album. “Black and Blue” was my last thing when I worked with them. It’s all stayed together to me as one big lump.

What about working with them and collaborating today in a business model? What carried over from Chess years ago that influenced the Rolling Stones Records?
Chess: What I brought to the Stones — and added to it — was the attitude. “F**k everyone. F**k the label. Keep recording until we have a motherf**ker.” And I used to get called on the carpet. “You’re spending too much recording.” So what. “You want a hit?” With Chess the music came first. We knew we had the greatest music and the best chance of making money. That’s what I laid on them. Spend the money. With “Exile” we had a kitchen. A house. Truck. But we came out with a classic album.

I treat my people here very much like we treated the people at Chess. It’s hard to put into words. Like, when I was running Rolling Stones Records, and working with the Stones as artists, you have to be on call 24 7. Dealing with talent and running a label. Discriminating the real talent from bullshit. And then respecting the real talent immensely. And showing them that you respect it. And, once they know you respect it then you can criticize easier and help them.

Like I told Mick Jagger once, when I first started being like Chess to him, was during the recording of “Moonlight Mile” for “Sticky Fingers.” I remember I was in the f**kin’ truck in Stargroves. And I kept telling him when he was doing the vocal “You can do it again motherf**ker! Do it again motherf**ker! Do it again!” What I saw with everyone around the Stones, they were so enamored with the Stones everything was great. Even shit. But I was taught by my father and uncle that you push an artist past the event, you push an artist and somewhere down there will be his best take.

So I think I did that with the Stones, and I really have no qualms of saying I spent as much time, or even more time then anyone except Mick and Keith in the studio on my seven Stones’ albums. More than Charlie, more than Bill, more than Mick Taylor. More than Ronnie. I came to the full mixing, the overdubbing. I loved Mick Taylor in the Stones. That was great. Because I liked Mick Taylor’s feminine warm sounds intertwined with Keith’s masculinity. And I felt Ronnie was brilliant, I knew him from the Faces. Ronnie is like Keith. It’s like two Keiths. They’re both very similar. But that Mick Taylor had something, the texture. Even now when I listen to the Stones’ channel on Sirius, I hear those Mick Taylor solos… Does something to me.

Why were the records of the Chess label sonic gifts?
Chess: The best explanation is, this may sound way out. It contains magic. The most apparent magic that we can see or experience is music. Let’s face it. Music changes the way you feel. That’s magical. Chess Records for some reason was a magnet for amazing artistry. All these magicians came to Chess. And we were able to capture it. And it’s something that can be experienced through audio. The music has stood up without a cinematic aspect like video. And the method of recording. As I grew older, and was a person of the hippie generation, and discovered things like meditation, psychedelic drugs, Buddhism, I realized what was happening in the early Chess studio was like a high Buddhist monk meditation manager. Because when you recorded in mono and two-track with 5 or 6 players and a singer there wasn’t any correction possible. One of the main jobs as a producer was like a meditation manager master. He had to get the band locked together to go down. I remember when they were teaching me to produce they always would say, “When the motherf**ker f**ks up you got to embarrass him and tell him to play that shit right. Over and over.”

In 2002, you and your son Jamar, and Juan Carlos Barguil, formed the Sunflower Entertainment Group which has become one of the leading global licensing and publishing companies from Latin to the American songbook. And have also established the creation of the all-digital music label, Musica de la Calle.
Chess: The objective of our company is to release music hot off the street. As soon as we get it you get it. Through a digital platform we have the ability to do this as downloads. What we are looking for is the newest sounds and most interesting productions around. The artists that we have brought in are constantly coming up with new tracks and bringing in their collaborators to work with our other artists. It’s developing into a big family sound. Just like my days at Chess.

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