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Life Well Lived: Phil Chess, who helped bring blues music to America, dies at 95

by Kayla Jardine / / Source: TODAY

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Phil Chess, who helped capture the sounds of a generation and worked with legendary artists like Muddy Waters, Etta James, and Chuck Berry, passed away last Tuesday at his home in Tucson, Arizona at the age of 95.

He helped bring the incredible, soulful sounds of the blues to America, and Sunday TODAY's Willie Geist honored Phil for the show's "Life Well Lived" feature.

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When Chess co-founded Chess Records with his brother Leonard, who died in 1969, it was simply a way for the pair to make money. They had no idea they would help revolutionize the music industry.

Phil Chess and his brother Leonard helped bring the blues to America.Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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The Chess brothers immigrated from Poland in 1928 and moved to Chicago. Years later, in a nightclub they owned called the Macomba Lounge, they realized many of the sounds and songs happening in their club were yet to be heard by the rest of the country.

In 1950, they opened Chess Records.

"Neither played an instrument," wrote Nadine Cohodas in her book about the brothers, "Spinning Blues into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records."

"Neither had even a bent for music. But they were entrepreneurs, and through the indigenous sounds of America—blues and its progeny, jazz, rock and roll, and soul—they found their fortune."

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Chess Records founder Phil Chess, singer Etta James and record producer Ralph Bass pose for a portrait at Chess Records Studios in 1960 in Chicago, illinois.Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

With artists like Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson, they created the Chicago blues.

“Chess not only became the true repository of American blues music," said the Hall of Fame in 1987 when it inducted Leonard Chess, "it also presented black music for the edification of white audiences throughout the world."

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Though much of the fame and credit went to his brother, Phil Chess was there the whole way, ensuring the studio's success.

"[Phil] was there every day," said Leonard's son, Marshall Chess. "It was a fully symbiotic, synergistic relationship."

Phil Chess oversaw virtually every step of the recording process at Chess Records. Getty Images

Fortunately in 2013, both brothers were awarded with a Trustees Award for lifetime achievement by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

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"Chess was cutting the type of music nobody else was paying attention to," said American blues guitarist and singer Buddy Guy.

Without Phil Chess, American music wouldn't be what it is today. He was certainly a life well lived.

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