In its day, Chess Records was, to quote the immortal Dewey Finn, the cat’s pyjamas, man. Founded in 1950 by Leonard and Phil Chess, the record label was home to the biggest names in jazz, blues, and a little genre called rock ‘n’ roll. Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry: all of them released their biggest records via Chess, records that eventually found their way into the hands of budding rock ‘n’ roll guitarist Keith Richards, whose band The Rolling Stones decided to record at Chess Studios in a homage to the music that made them.
The chance to record the follow up to their debut album at Chess Studios was a dream come true for The Stones. Jagger, Richards, Wyman and Jones set off for Chicago in 1964 while they were midway through their first tour stateside. When they arrived at Chess, they were positively levitating with excitement. The studio had meant so much to them in their teenage years, and being surrounded by framed records from their heroes must have felt pretty special. Little did they know one of those heroes, Muddy Waters, would be painting the ceiling of the entrance lobby when they stepped inside. “We walked into Chess Studios and there’s this guy in black overalls painting the ceiling,” Keith Richards recalled. “And it’s Muddy Waters and he’s got whitewash streaming down his face and he’s on top of a ladder.”
That one moment must have made all The Stones’ hard work feel worthwhile. Water’s presence was clearly a good omen too. The studio session, which was held over two days, was incredibly prolific and ended with 14 songs in the can, including ‘It’s All Over Now’, which didn’t feature on the Stones’ 1964 EP Five By Five but would later become a number one hit. It was also in Chess Studio where The Stones first recorded ‘Satisfaction’ in an acoustic form.
But why was Muddy Waters, a fellow recording artist, painting the ceiling that day rather than singing into a microphone? You see, Leonard and Phil Chess were famously frugal. In their eyes, payment was something you needed to work for, and if you weren’t selling enough records, the work you were required to do might change. Muddy, as it happens, was not selling many records when Richards and the gang bumped into him in Botticelli mode. As well as painting, the blues singer was asked to load amps and other studio equipment into the live room.
Unsurprisingly, Marshall Chess was quick to deny the label’s ill-treatment of its artists. “Keith maintains to this day that it actually happened,” he once said. “I’ve laughed in his face many times as he’s insisted he saw Muddy up a ladder with a paintbrush in hand. I guess people want to believe that it’s true. It says something about how unfashionable the blues had become at that time. By ’64 nobody really wanted to know. White people had never bought blues records.”
It’s worth pointing out that Marshall was little more than a child when the meeting took place, so it’s hard to see why we should trust his claims. Regardless, The Stones’ time in Chess Studios marked the beginning of a new chapter in their career, one that would see them reach the top of their game in just a few short years.