PopCult Rudy Panucci on Pop Culture

A Trip To The Chess Recording Studio In Chicago

The PopCulteer
October 12, 2018

It’s the place where the magic was made, The legendary Chess recording Studio, located at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago, an address immortalized by The Rolling Stones in their only instrumental track, and recorded at that very address.

The Stones chose to record at Chess because it was the home base of many of the artists who inspired them. As they say on their website, “Chess Records, formed in the early 1950s by and run by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, was one of the great American record labels. They produced and released many important singles and albums, which are now regarded as central to the blues and rock music genre.

“At one time, Chess Records was considered “America’s greatest blues label” with notable acts including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Etta James, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Willie Dixon was one of the main producers, songwriters and arrangers of the signature “Chess Records Sound”.

“Chess Records was based at several different locations on the South side of Chicago, Illinois. The most famous location was 2120 S. Michigan Avenue from around 1956 to 1965. During those years, acts such as Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Sonny Boy Williamson II recorded at the legendary studio.

“In 1993, Willie Dixon’s widow, Marie, purchased the building which was then renovated and re-opened in September 1997 with a dedication ceremony. It is now home to Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. “

While your PopCulteer was in Chicago last month, our hotel was just around the corner from this landmark, and before we hopped the train home, we had to stop in and see this vital piece of musical history.

Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation is open Tuesday-Saturday from Noon until 4 PM, with tours every hour from Noon to 3 PM. You start in the lobby and walk though the entire building, winding up in the actual recording studio that was used to record so many major hit records.

There are signs posted that ask you not to shoot video or record any audio there. The reasons for this are two-fold. First and foremost, the museum tours are a major source of revenue for the non-profit Wille Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation, and the more video people post of the tours on Facebook, the less reason people have to take the very reasonably-priced tour.

The second reason is that, very soon, the recording studio will be re-opened as a working studio where people can record music. When we were there the old studio control board was out being refurbished, and the plan is to restore all the analog recording equipment to perfect working order. They don’t want to just give away studio time that will be going for a premium once they’re up and running.

To be honest, when I saw that shooting video was prohibited, I was a bit relieved. I’ve pretty obsessively shot video of every cool thing that I’ve done, almost since the beginning of PopCult, and sometimes shooting the video takes away from the experience of actually being in cool places or at fun events. I was perfectly content to soak in the experience, and only took a handful of photos (which are allowed).

The only drawback was that, at the end of the tour, when my lovely wife Mel asked if it was okay to sing and try out the amazing acoustics of that fantastic room with the vaulted ceilings and specially designed walls, I couldn’t shoot any video of the moment. I did grab a photo, though. Mel, after waffling a bit while deciding what to sing, took my request of Gershwin’s “Summertime.”

Trust me, Mel sounded amazing standing in the spot where Etta James recorded “At Last,” singing into the very same microphone (which wasn’t on, but still. Mel made it sound like it was).

I could go on and on about the acoustics of that room (seen right). Our tour guide played some of the music recorded there, and hearing it in the same room where it was recorded was just uncanny. At one point someone in the tour group coughed, and it sounded like it was on the original recording. I swear, being in that room, even my thoughts sounded better.

Anyone with any interest in American music owes it to themselves to visit Willie Dixon’s Blues Foundation. You can find out more about it HERE. If you live in Chicago and haven’t been there yet, what the hell are you waiting for?  It’s a short walk from two different L stops on Cermak, so you can take the Red, Green or Orange line there with no problem. You can even eat at White Castle after the tour.

We plan to go back next summer, and stick around for one of the free Thursday concerts next door in Willie Dixon’s Blues Garden. I think we are allowed to shoot video there.

Here are a few photos of our trip to the Chess Recording Studio.

The landmark plaque.
The promised land!

 

Mrs. and Mr. PopCulteer, standing among the greatness.

 

I didn’t want to post detailed photos of all of the fantastic exhibits, but Raymond Wallace would never forgive me if I didn’t include this shot of Bo Diddley’s display.

 

The office of Leonard Chess, given a heavenly glow by me forgetting to wipe off the camera lens on my phone.
Willie Dixon’s bass. If you’ve ever listened to music in the last sixty years, you’ve probably heard it.
Vintage recording equipment in the rehearsal room.
In the recording studio, Willie Dixon’s pianos are flanked by a mini-exhibit of paintings by Ron Wood.
Meanwhile in the other end of the studio, Mel tries out the acoustics.
The control room, which was roped off pending its restoration. I was able to lean in and get one quick photo.
One last photo of the happy couple in the legendary recording studio.

I want to stress that these pictures only scratch the surface of the dozens of displays and artifacts located in Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation.  You will find everything from Koko Taylor’s dresses to Chuck Berry’s pants to life masks of over thirty blues and rock legends. There’s a gift shop, the offices of the Chess Brothers, what used to be the loading dock, now filled with memorabilia, the rehearsal hall, the recording studio and even the walls of the hallways and stairwells are covered with rock and blues history. It’s an amazing place for any music lover to visit.

And that is our PopCulteer this week. As always, check back every day for fresh content and all of our regular features.