5 Record Labels that Defined Chicago's Musical Identity
A hotbed for blues, soul, noise rock, house, jazz, alt-country, and just about every other form of American music, Chicago has been home to some of the most important record labels of the 20th century.
Ask any musician in Chicago to describe the city’s music scene, and you may draw a blank stare. It’s a city defined by its neighborhoods, with venues and record stores scattered throughout Chicago’s 237 square miles. No single dominant style or physical focal point ties it all together.
A look at the history of Chicago record labels reveals a similar diversity. A hotbed for blues, soul, noise rock, house, jazz, alt-country, and just about every other form of American music, Chicago has been home to some of the most important record labels of the 20th century. They captured the talents of both native and transplanted artists and created genre-defining catalogs in the process.
This week marks Chicago’s 181st birthday, and, in celebration, we’re taking a look at five of its quintessential labels and the essential records produced by each. There are dozens of other labels that could have made the cut, but in our view, these are the five that best define the city’s musical identity and legacy.
Founded by Polish-Jewish immigrant brothers Phil and Leonard Chess, Chess Records grew out of an earlier imprint called Aristocrat Records and released its first side in 1950. Before long, Chess became closely associated with a new form of blues led by Muddy Waters. Chicago Blues, as it would eventually be known, electrified the forms laid out in the Delta and brought to the city by migrants in the first half of the 20th century. Waters was soon joined at Chess by a cast of bluesmen that included Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and the legendary songwriter Willie Dixon.
These records were a key stepping stone toward the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, which can be traced through the label’s catalog from the mid-‘50s. Chess was responsible for bringing Chuck Berry to the national spotlight with his hit “Maybellene,” along with Bo Diddley and his eponymous 1955 debut single.
Through its Argo imprint, Chess released jazz records from the likes of Ramsey Lewis and Ahmad Jamal, and in the ‘60s it branched into soul with records like Etta James’ classic rendition of “At Last” and Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me.” Later in the ‘60s, Leonard Chess’ son Marshall brought the company into more psychedelic territory with the group Rotary Connection and a spacey, controversial Muddy Waters project called Electric Mud before the label was sold in 1969.
Operating right across the street from Chess for a time, Vee-Jay Records was founded by the husband-and-wife team of Vivian Carter and James Bracken in Gary, Indiana. At its peak, it was the most successful black-owned record label in America before the ascent of Motown.
Like Chess, Vee-Jay had early success with blues, and its catalog starts with a single from Jimmy Reed from 1951. Vee-Jay would also work with John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, and Elmore James later in the ‘50s. Concurrently, the growing label brought jazz artists into the fold, releasing records from Wayne Shorter, Paul Chambers, Wynton Kelly, and Eric Dolphy.
In the ‘60s, Vee-Jay made its mark on doo-wop and soul with major hits like Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl” in 1962 and Betty Everett’s “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)” in 1964. Many soon-to-be stars would also find an early outlet on Vee-Jay in this era: several early Staples Singers records were released by the label (featuring Mavis Staples at the age of 12), and a young Curtis Mayfield can be heard via an early incarnation of the Impressions with Jerry Butler.
The label’s reach grew with the signing of the Four Seasons and the release of hits like “Sherry,” followed by its distribution of the first Beatles records in America. The Beatles deal, however, would be part of the label’s undoing, as it struggled to keep up with demand and eventually lost the contract to Capitol Records. Vee-Jay folded by the mid-‘60s, but not before helping to define the sound of soul, blues, jazz, and gospel in Chicago and beyond.
Originally based in Denver, Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher moved their record shop to Chicago in 1978. What started as a mecca for exotic punk, new wave, and other strains of the rock avant garde gave way to a full-fledged label in 1979, kicking things off with a 7-inch pressing of Brian Eno’s “Lion Sleeps Tonite.”
In time, Wax Trax! would become synonymous with industrial music, single-handedly positioning Chicago as an American epicenter of the dark, brutally rhythmic genre. The label released a string of early Ministry records (along with many, many indulgent side projects of Ministry leader Al Jourgensen), as well as titles from My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, Revolting Cocks, and KMFDM. Early on, it also had a hand in cementing a genre called EBM in the States, with the licensed release of No Comment by Belgium’s Front 242.
By most accounts, the store and the label were a loosely run business operation with Nash and Flesher far more interested in cultivating and curating the music they loved than any profit-or-loss consideration. Artist deals, for instance, operated on a strict handshake, no-contract basis, and for most fans and followers (and especially with Chicago’s dance DJs), the operation’s reputation came from its curation more than any single hit, artist, or record.
Encroachment of major labels into the industrial scene and a set of bad business deals saw the label hit bankruptcy in the early ‘90s. Wax Trax! was taken over by TVT Records in 1992 and continued to operate until 2001 (though Jim’s daughter Julia Nash did relaunch the label in 2014).
For electronic music fans and producers in Chicago, the invention of house music as a distinct dance genre in the early ‘80s remains a central point of pride. Evolving from disco and fusing disparate dance records with drum machines, synthesized bass lines, and an omnipresent “four on the floor” beat, house would grow from the decks of the Chicago club scene to its current place as one of the major schools of electronic music in the world, with its many sub-strains and divisions.
At the center of it all was Trax records, founded by Larry Sherman and Screamin Rachael in 1983. While not the only house label of its era (DJ International claims a similar legacy and influence), Trax’s roster and catalog includes many of the genre’s foundational works. House progenitor Frankie Knuckles’ “Baby Wants to Ride” was a Trax release, as was Ron Hardy’s “Sensation,” Jungle Wonz’s “Time Marches On,” Marshall Jefferson’s “Move your Body,” and Adonis’ “No Way Back“—and that’s just a small selection. The label also released Phuture’s “Acid Tracks”, the original acid house record.
In the ‘80s, Trax had an on-site pressing plant where it manufactured its own product, though the company was notorious for recycling used vinyl—it’s not uncommon to find pieces of paper, debris or other foreign objects in Trax pressings. The at-times phoned-in production wasn’t the only less-than-glowing thing about the operation, and there remain disputes to this day as to various accreditations and royalties.
Like indie rock itself, Touch and Go grew out of the punk scene and its communal ethos. Stemming from a fanzine in the early ‘80s, founder Corey Rusk and his cohorts released singles for their own bands initially in Ohio and Detroit, before relocating to Chicago as the label’s operations and roster continued to expand.
According to Rusk, Touch and Go signed bands it liked on both personal and creative levels, and while this may seem like a simple enough approach, it’s a model that stood in contrast to the major labels of the day. In doing so, the label began to establish a coterie of cutting-edge rock outfits that covered the spectrum of emerging styles that developed in the wake of hardcore, laying the groundwork for what would become the alternative and grunge explosion of the following decade.
Core bands from different points in Touch and Go’s history include noise rock icons The Jesus Lizard and Brainiac, the Steve Albini-helmed Big Black and Shellac, the rhythmically enchanting Don Caballero, and post-rock progenitors, Slint. The label has, for the most part, handled production themselves and makes a point of keeping its catalog almost entirely in print at any given point, regardless of its avoidance of extensive contracts with its artists.