If it hadn't been for a couple of Polish immigrant brothers named Leonard and Phil Chess, much of the music that formed the basis for rock-and-roll might not have been recorded. From 1947, the Chess brothers recorded black blues artists like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf, and distributed them in the United States and Europe. In 1984 MCA Records purchased the entire Chess catalog - around 30,000 albums - and started to re-release them last summer, starting off with a Chuck Berry double album, ``Rock 'n' Roll Rarities.'' Since then, 12 other titles have been released, a wonderful cross section of American blues that presents a wide variety of styles - from raw, gospel-oriented blues ``shouting'' to smooth, jazz-inflected pop blues to boogie-woogie to rhythmic, jumping R&B and everything in between.
All the Chess recordings have been remastered and cleaned up, resulting in generally excellent sound. Each album includes both the original liner notes (many of them by Studs Terkel) and some new ones, too, to add a little historical and cultural perspective to the music. MCA finally dug up the original cover art from an outfit called Ivy Hill in Terra Haute, Ind., which, amazingly, still had all the Chess album jackets on file.
So for $4.98 an album, blues fans can really stock up. Some highlights in the series: the original sound track from the 1956 movie, ``Rock, Rock, Rock'' - starring Tuesday Weld and featuring Chuck Berry with the Moonglows and the Flamingos - including ``Roll Over, Beethoven''; Bo Diddley's first two albums, ``Bo Diddley'' and ``Go Bo Diddley,'' released in the late 1950s; ``Muddy Waters Live at Newport,'' the 1960 folk festival performance that was Waters's first in front of a white audience.
Other albums in the series: ``Big Bill Broonzy with Washboard Sam''; ``The Best of Little Walter'' - a prot'eg'e of Broonzy; ``Memphis Slim,'' 1950 recordings by the songwriter, vocalist, and self-taught ``walking bass'' pianist; ``Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill Broonzy''; ``Moanin' in the Moonlight,'' the debut album of vocalist and harmonica player Howlin' Wolf; Little Milton's ``We're Gonna Make It,'' recorded in 1965; and guitarist/singer John Lee Hooker's ``John Lee Hooker Plays and Sings the Blues.'' There's also a blues anthology, ``The Blues, Volume One,'' with nine artists, including Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, and Muddy Waters.