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Chess Records founder’s son slams studio owners: ‘We were dissed’

Marshall Chess (pictured right) whose father ran legendary Chess Records studio Michigan Avenue says family feels “dissed” by site’s current

Marshall Chess (pictured at right), whose father ran the legendary Chess Records studio on Michigan Avenue, says the family feels “dissed” by the site’s current ownership, headed by Marie Dixon.

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Updated: April 28, 2012 8:06AM

Marshall Chess is the son of the late Leonard Chess, the driving force at Chess Records.

He has kept silent about the developments at his father’s historic studio at 2120 S. Michigan.

Until now.

The space, where Etta James first sang and where the Rolling Stones recorded in 1964, re-opened in 1997 as a museum and headquarters for Blues Heaven Foundation, which owns and operates the facility. The non-profit foundation was founded in 1980 by Chess songwriter-producer Willie Dixon.

But the Chicago landmark is falling apart and visitors are down. In October, Jacqueline Dixon, the foundation’s executive director and Dixon’s daughter, told the Sun-Times she would “consider” changing the name from Blues Heaven to a more identifiable Chess Studios — like Motown in Detroit and Sun Records and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, Tenn.

“The whole Chess family was taken out of the picture,” Chess said from his home in upstate New York. “If you want to talk hip-hop, we were dissed. I mean, they took our name off the building.

“I would buy the building if they would sell it and I would run it the right way. I know the money goes to charity [Blues Heaven], but I could tell them how to make that a giant tourist attraction — and a profit. I would make a deal with a Chicago mobile recording company, rebuild the room upstairs, run the wires to the street and start hiring the studio out to bands. There’s an empty lot next door and they could do like they did in Memphis [at Sun Records] with a restaurant with music.

“And Chicago has much more tourism than Memphis.”

Marie Dixon, 74, is president of the Blues Heaven Foundation and the widow of Willie Dixon. She said, “Marshall hasn’t made a donation so we could even restore the building properly. Is Marshall willing to help us put the studio back in but not become my partner? Phil [Chess, Marshall’s uncle] made a small donation in ‘94 or ‘95. But the building is sagging. It is sinking. One of the dreams of my lifetime is to get a studio back in there, but I need a lot of help. I don’t know how to write a grant.

“I’m not trying to cut the Chess name out. They let it go out. We mention the offices of Leonard and Phil Chess on every tour. I purchased that building in a demolition stage. I came in from the West Coast and saved that building.

“Where would the Chess name had gone if they had torn it down, or not made it a landmark?”

The 2120 S. Michigan building was designated a city landmark in 1990. Marie Dixon bought the two-floor terra cotta building in 1993. She provided more than $400,000 of the initial $650,000 startup costs. She then donated the building to the Blues Heaven Foundation. Willie Dixon died in 1992.

Marshall Chess confirmed he has not donated to Blues Heaven. “I was highly insulted,” said Chess, 70. “At one point I was there with my cousin Terry. We were taking photos out in front of the building. We went in and the guy wanted to charge us admission.

“But by the time I turned 50 I learned that sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut.”

And then Chess continued, releasing years of frustration. He said, “More creativity came out of 2120 than any other place in the history of Chicago. It wasn’t just Chuck Berry and the blues. We had black comedy artists. We had amazing jazz. Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s first album. The Record Row studios that ground out stuff dried up after Chess left. Otherwise R. Kelly and Kanye West would have been on Chess, no doubt about it.”

The 2120 S. Michigan building was a magical spot for the Chess brothers. They purchased the former auto parts warehouse in 1956, and the glory days ran until 1967, when they moved to a bigger space at 320 E. 21st St.

“That building is our family’s history,” Chess said. “We never thought it would have been turned into Blues Heaven, with the Chess letters taken off. We went to the landmark ceremony. We were never consulted. It was a great honor, but they ruined the soul. They remodeled it like it was from another era. I didn’t want to say anything because the landmark guy was there and they still did a nice job.”

Chess and his uncle Phil tried to purchase the original Chess studio cast aluminum letters that had been transferrred to the label’s last stop on East 21st St. They asked the Dixon family to restore the letters on the 2120 S. Michigan space. It never happened.

Chess said he last spoke to Marie Dixon when Martin Scorsese’s 2003 PBS blues documentary “Godfathers and Sons” was being made in Chicago. “Marie loves Phil and me,” he said. “She hugged us in that documentary. But I put feelers out numerous times about buying the building. After I sold [the music publishing company] ARC , I thought this would be a great project. I didn’t care about money, it could all go to a blues charity.”

Dixon uses royalty income to help keep Blues Heaven Foundation alive. Willie Dixon wrote Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” and Howlin Wolf’s “Back Door Man,” among hundreds of others. “But royalties are not enough to restore the building the way in which it needs to be restored,” she said. She would not disclose Blues Heaven finances.

“What can I say?” Chess asked. “My family’s gone. [Phil Chess is 90 years old.] I would love to get involved, but if I put my name on it I want it to be the best. Why would I want it to be second-rate?”

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