Late 1940s - Early 1960s
Electric Chicago blues

A few years after World War II, the bluesmen in Chicago plugged in their guitars, added drums and suddenly they had invented a new, exciting, powerful form that redefined blues and gave it one of its most enduring and successful forms. The 1950s, primarily the first half of the decade, were the golden age of this brand of music, as the giants Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and company all established their greatness as live performers and producers of classic blues tracks, usually around the record company Chess. With the advent of rock and roll in 1955, blues records took a beating in terms of sales, yet its practitioners continued making classic records. But it was the British Invasion of 1964 and beyond, and especially its blues-based bands such as the Yardbirds, the Animals, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and the Stones, who brought wider public attention to these performers and allowed them to extend their careers..

Without a doubt, electric Chicago blues constitutes, along with R&B-derived rock & roll by the likes of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley (who both also recorded on Chess and sometimes used the same backup musicians as the Chicago blues greats), the backbone of the Stones' musical identity. Though the Stones' music has varied through the years and really encompassed a wide variety of musical styles, contemporary and past, the blues and R&B have never really left their sound.

BILLY BOY ARNOLD  (1935-     )

Born in Chicago, 13-year-old harmonica player Billy Arnold met the original Sonny Boy Williamson (John Lee) the year he was murdered (1948) and got some lessons from him. In the 1950s, he met Bo Diddley and played on some his songs (Bo Diddley, I'm a Man), which led to his making a few of his own Bo Diddley inspired hits like I Wish You Would and I Ain't Got You. Arnold's career dwindled in the mid-'60s but 30 years later, in the 1990s, he resurfaced with new albums.

The Stones used to perform a few of his numbers in their fledgling days, including I Ain't Got You.

FRED BELOW  (1926-1988)

Below was the mostly used drummer on the classic Chicago electric blues sides recorded in the 1950s. Born in Chicago, like Charlie Watts he was at first a jazz drummer who eventually turned to the blues. Returning from service in the army in the early 1950s, he was incited by Muddy Waters to join Junior Wells' band, which eventually teamed up with Little Walter. From there, Below went on to record for most of the great Chess blues greats, like Little Walter, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, and even Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

When Charlie joined the Stones, he couldn't help but be influenced by Below's playing.

Freddy Below is a great subtle drummer, really, although he's feet-first and it's noisy. But it's actually very subtle, the pick-ups he does... If Freddy Below is the player on Smokestack Lightnin', by Howlin' Wolf, that's really clever drumming. That isn't just straight-ahead. He plays lovely things with his feet.

                                                 - Charlie Watts, 1994


WILLIE DIXON  (1915-1992)

A bassist and singer, it was as songwriter that Mississippi-born Willie Dixon left his greatest legacy. His influence on the Stones is therefore indirect, but nevertheless tremendous, as he wrote many of the classics that form the repertoire of artists like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf and Bo Diddley. His songs include Hoochie Coochie Man, Little Red Rooster, I Just Want to Make Love to You and You Can't Judge a Book By Its Cover among many others.

I mean, what a songwriter! To me, that's one of the names. When I was getting into the blues, it was, Who wrote this? I was lookin' at Muddy Waters records, and who wrote it? Dixon, Dixon, Dixon. And the bass player is writin' THESE songs? And then I'm lookin' at Howlin' Wolf: Dixon, Dixon, Dixon. I said, Oh, yeah, this guy is more than just a great bass player! And let's face it: he was an incredible bass player. You know, that would be enough. But he's the backbone of postwar blues writing, the absolute. Personally, I talk of him and Muddy in the same breath, and John Lee (Hooker), come to that. You know, gents... Willie, man, what a guy. It was a pleasure for us to do his songs... You've just got to listen to the whole body of work, man. Willie Dixon is SUPERIOR.

                                                  - Keith Richards, 1994

The Stones jammed with Dixon and Waters at a Chicago club during their 1978 U.S. tour.

Well, (the Stones) come to my house, you know, and I wouldn't let them all in the house 'cause there be too many people with 'em, you know. They had a whole LINE of limousines, a block-long of limousines, and all of them full of people and they think they gonna get in my 6-room house. And that could never happen, you know. So I took 'em all where Muddy Waters was working at The Quiet Night, it was a good big place... We got into jammin' and singin' and playin' together.

                                                 - Willie Dixon, 1982


BUDDY GUY  (1936-     )

Born in Louisiana, legendary guitarist and blues singer Buddy Guy moved to Chicago in the late 1950s to become one of the leading players in the second generation of Chicago blues players. He started a 10-year solo career for Chess Records that saw him recording most of his classics (Stone Crazy, Let Me Love You Baby) and veering classic '50s Chicago blues into more of a soul blues genre. He also played as a session player during these years with most of the greats: Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf et al.

Guy left Chess in 1967 but for the next two decades his career never reached the same level of success again, although he continued to perform and be praised by artists such as Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn. The 1990s rehabilitated his career, however, like no other Chicago blues artist. He released one Grammy-award winning album after another. Guy's guitar heroics are unparalleled in the history of Chicago blues, definitely a precursor to a performer like Vaughn.

The Stones have jammed with Buddy Guy at several occasions throughout the years, most notably when they jammed with Dixon and Muddy Waters. He also performed at Woody's club/restaurant in the late 1980s. The Stones performed Guy's early 60s classic Let Me Love You Baby during their formative years. He performed onstage with them in New York for the 2006 concerts that were filmed for Shine a Light.

JOHN LEE HOOKER  (1917-2001)

Born in Mississippi, Hooker was perhaps not as big an influence on the Stones as, say, Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters, yet they nevertheless listened to and played his material occasionally. Hooker stood somewhat apart from the others firstly because he was based in Detroit, not in Chicago like most of the other great electric blues greats of the period. Second, his style, though electrified in the late 1940s when he started recording, remained more primitive, more grounded in the Delta acoustic style. Hooker played in a rhythmically complex and hypnotic way, never as forceful as Waters or Wolf, but creating records that were dark, cryptic and chilling, as well as producing some hits later on that were more light-hearted. His greatest tracks were recorded in the late 1940s and early '50s, songs like Boogie Chillen, Hobo Blues and I'm in the Mood. He recorded for a variety of labels and continued to have blues hits in the late 1950s and early '60s, songs like I Love You Honey and Boom Boom. Hooker's career enjoyed a revival in the 1990s, helped by artists like Bonnie Raitt.

(John Lee Hooker is not so tight) on his sequences. John Lee forgets sequences. E? Where's E? Where my bottom string is. That's John Lee.

                                                - Keith Richards, 1992

The Stones did occasionally cover some John Lee Hooker songs in their earliest days. In 1989, they invited him onstage for the last shows of their 1989 Steel Wheels tour in Atlantic City, playing Boogie Chillen. In 1991, Keith contributed to a new Hooker album, playing on Crawling King Snake.

John Lee was the one I hadn't played with until last year. I'd never got around to working with him. With him, there's a break in the continuity of styles. What he picked up has got to come from like one generation further back than anybody else.

                                               - Keith Richards, 1992
Hooker died in June 2001.

HOWLIN' WOLF  (1910-1976)

Howlin' Wolf was another tremendous influence on the Stones, his only equal being Muddy Waters in terms of stage presence and influence on the Chicago blues scene of the 1950s. Born in Mississippi like many of his luminaries, Wolf started out as a Delta acoustic blues player, imitating Charley Patton's fierce growl and hard-driving guitar style. In the late 1940s, he established himself as a radio DJ in north-east Arkansas, at the point where the state meets up with the borders of Tennessee and Mississippi, near the city of Memphis, where he would also feature his band on air. In the early '50s, he was signed up by Sam Phillips for Sun Records in Memphis, then left for Chess in Chicago where his band were the chief rivals of Muddy's band in the clubs, and his hits records rivaled his as well (Evil, Smokestack Lightning). Starting in 1960, he formed an exclusive collaboration with Willie Dixon, who wrote a series of other hits for him in the following years. Wolf was a tremendous personality on record and onstage, his sound very often sharp and angular and violent.

Like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf was one of those artists whose careers benefited by the success of British blues-based bands like the Stones who covered his songs (Little Red Rooster). (The Stones also covered Wolf's Little Baby on their 1995 Stripped album.)

When the Stones appeared on the US TV program Shindig in 1965, they insisted that Howlin' Wolf be on the program as well. Wolf performed as the Stones listened as his feet, an opportunity that Wolf always appreciated. He died of kidney disease, the same year as Jimmy Reed.

(Meeting Howlin' Wolf was) like meeting a great big old bull elephant that knew it all. He would just sort of wisely nod his head: Very good. To me, at that age, it was overpowering. And he was such a big guy, and gentle. The strong guys are gentle, always.

                                                   - Keith Richards, 1992

I met Howlin' Wolf on that show we did... which is when he introduced me to Son House. He was in the audience at the Shindig show. Howlin' Wolf said to me, I want you to come meet somebody. And I said to him, Who? He said, I'll tell you in a minute. We went up into the audience, walked up with all these children, and he said, This is Son House. And there was this guy sitting in the audience with all these kids, wearing denim overalls before it was fashionable to wear denim overalls. And he said, This is Son House, and Son House did the original Little Red Rooster. I don't know what he's talkin' about, because he was pretty recherché at the time. He became a bit more known after this. And he said, You shouldn't worry about doing The Little Red Rooster, because I wasn't the first person to do it anyway. He was very, very nice and gentlemanly about it...

                                                  - Mick Jagger, 1994


ELMORE JAMES  (1918-1963)

Mississippi-born James was one of the many important figures to emigrate to Chicago and contribute to the electric Chicago blues golden age of the 1950s. He was the pre-eminent slide blues guitar player of his era, developing a loud, emotional, electric style that was totally revolutionary. His singing style was also quite overpowering. James' band, the Broomdusters, were rivals of the Howlin' Wolf and the Muddy Waters bands. Brian was an especially fervent Elmore James fan, going so far as to style himself Elmo Lewis in the early days of the Stones. Brian also developed his slide guitar playing mostly from listening to Elmore James records. James' most celebrated song and riff is Dust My Broom, a remake of a Robert Johnson song. Brian was allegedly playing the song when Mick and Keith first met him in London.

And it's Brian, man, he's sittin' on his little... he's bent over... da-da-da, da-da-da... I said, what? What the fuck? Playing bar slide guitar. We get into Brian after he finishes Dust My Blues (sic). He's really fantastic and a gas...

                                                   - Keith Richards

James had a heart condition and died of a heart attack while still in his prime.

LITTLE WALTER  (1930-1968)

One of the greatest blues harmonica players of all time, Little Walter enjoyed success both as a member of other artists' bands and on his own, always typifying the great Chicago blues sound. Born in Louisiana, Walter was already a player in the pre-electric era of the Chicago blues scene, playing with Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy. He then joined Muddy Waters' band and became an integral part of Muddy's early sound and records. He also enjoyed a string of successes on his own in the '50s, where he both sang and played his harp.

The Stones learned from Little Walter from early on, in the same way they learned from Muddy and Wolf and all the Chicago greats. He was also a definite influence on Mick and Brian's harmonica playing. He died in a street fight.

JIMMY REED  (1925-1976)

Although not often as celebrated today, I argue (see here) that Jimmy Reed was one of the four biggest influences on the Stones along with Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters.

Mississippi-born Jimmy Reed was one of a number of musicians who emigrated to Chicago and found success there eventually in the 1950s. Reed, however, wasn't part of Chess Records as Muddy Waters and Little Walter and many others were - he recorded on Vee-Jay. His career was also distinctive in that, though he had less technical expertise than a lot of his revered colleagues, he achieved the most commercial success, his records often getting played among white audiences whereas other blues artists did not. An alcoholic, Reed would often record drunk and his "mushmouth" singing became part of his style. Nevertheless his songs, even though repetitive, were simple and often had unforgettable hooks and melodies. His songs, many of them, have become blues classics and are covered by just about every blues band - from Bright Lights, Big City to Take Out Some Insurance On Me Baby to Ain't That Loving You Baby to Big Boss Man and many more.

Judging by the amount of songs the Stones covered onstage by Reed in their early years, and the testimonies of the Stones and colleagues as to how often they rehearsed and played his music, his style was essential to the Stones' musical development. Like Chuck Berry, he is also a figure that the Stones artistically could identify with: an artist with blues/R&B grounding that was achieving commercial success. And the apparent simplicity of his songs and style, like the apparent simplicity of blues in general, was in actuality a craft and required application and dedication.

The music seemed to be very simple but later you learned that it was quite hard to be simple.

                                                   - Bill Wyman

Reed was definitely an artist that Keith and Mick knew before they met Brian and had already incorporated his material in their repertoire as Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys. Reed was also an accomplished, if not technically brilliant, harmonica player, and his playing was undoubtedly an influence on Mick's playing of the instrument.

Brian found an apartment out in the suburbs of Beckham and I started to live there, too. This was an intense learning period, figuring out Jimmy Reed and stuff. You have to remember, at this time - '61, '62 - Elvis is just out of the Army, Buddy and Eddie are dead, Chuck's in jail, Jerry Lee is disgraced and Little Richard has thrown his rings in the water... Now, one way or another, I've got to keep the flame alive, just for myself, very selfishly. I didn't expect anybody else to get lit up by it... We wanted to sell records for Jimmy Reed, Muddy, John Lee Hooker. We were disciples - if we could turn people on to that, then that was enough.

                                                   - Keith Richards, 1988

When I joined the Rolling Stones I used to sit around, and Keith and Brian taught me Jimmy Reed. They used to play it all the time; we used to do a lot of those numbers. So I learned it through them.

                                                   - Charlie Watts, 1994

The Stones later covered Jimmy Reed's Honest I Do on their first album, perhaps one of their finest pure blues performances, while Little By Little on the same album was just a shameless rewrite of Reed's Shame Shame Shame.

JIMMY ROGERS  (1924-1997)

Born in Mississippi, Jimmy Rogers began as a harp player and moved to Chicago in the early 1940s, where he played with the likes of Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson (John Lee). Rogers joined Muddy Waters' band in 1949 and was his guitarist until his departure in 1955, contributing on the majority and the greatest of the Muddy Waters classics. Simultaneously Rogers, a gifted singer in his own right, enjoyed a successful solo career during the same years with Chess Records, recording classics like The World Is a Tangle and Chicago Bound.

It is undoubtedly as a guitarist that Rogers had great influence on the Stones, particularly Brian and Keith in the Stones' formative years. The Stones have played with him at several occasions over the years. Mick jammed with him at a club in 1980. In 1992, when Mick hosted a blues festival in London in the summer, he, Woody and Charlie played with Rogers onstage. In 1997, just before his death, Mick and Keith made contributions to his last album, released in 1999.

HUBERT SUMLIN  (1931-2011)

Born in Mississippi like most of his fellow players, guitarist Hubert Sumlin will be remembered for his steady gig as Howlin' Wolf's lead guitarist, playing on most of his classic sides, and playing with Wolf until the latter's death in 1976. He's since released a few solo records.

Because of his contributions to Wolf's songs, Sumlin is undoubtedly one of the Stones' (Brian, Keith, Woody) great influences as a guitarist. Charlie and Bill recorded an album with him and Wolf in the early 1970s. In 2000, Keith contributed to a yet-to-be released album by Sumlin.

Sumlin appeared with the Stones onstage at their January 16, 2003, Madison Square Garden concert. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards paid for his funeral arrangements in December 2011.

(Wolf) was great. But the guy with him was called Hubert Sumlin, and Hubert is a DREAM of a guy. Wonderful guy. I had a great time. I did a whole album with him.

                                                   - Charlie Watts, 1994

I love the way (Muddy Waters) did everything... Another one is Hubert Sumlin, who I met in New York. He came back to my house and we played all night. He's fantastic. I love that man, and I LOVE his playing with Howlin' Wolf, you know.

                                                   - Ron Wood, 1994

With sorrow I received the news of Hubert's passing. He put up a long hard fight. To me he was an uncle and a teacher, and all the guitar players must feel the same as myself.

                                                   - Keith Richards, 2011

Hubert was an incisive yet delicate blues player. He had a really distinctive and original tone and was a wonderful foil for Howlin' Wolf's growling vocal style. On a song like Goin' Down Slow he could produce heart-rending emotion, and on a piece like Wang Dang Doodle an almost playful femininity. He was an inspiration to us all.
                                                   - Mick Jagger, 2011


EDDIE TAYLOR  (1923-1985)

Born in Mississippi, guitarist Eddie Taylor witnessed Robert Johnson and even Charley Patton performing. In the late 1940s, he moved to Chicago and joined Jimmy Reed's combo, where he cut his mark in history by recording on most of Reed's classic sides of the 1950s. He also occasionally backed John Lee Hooker and Elmore James. In the mid-'50s, he tried a brief stab at a solo career, releasing songs like Bad Boy.

Keith and Brian definitely learned a lick or two (!) from Taylor with all the time they spent playing along to Jimmy Reed records when the Stones started. He is definitely one of the blues guitarists that left a great mark on them. In 1962, the Stones also covered Taylor's Bad Boy onstage.

MUDDY WATERS  (1913-1983)

If Robert Johnson is the towering figure in acoustic blues, Muddy Waters is the equivalent in electric blues. For the Stones, he is also perhaps their most important influence after Chuck Berry. Waters virtually defined Chicago electric blues.

Born in Mississippi, Waters was a fervent admirer of Son House and already an excellent acoustic blues practitioner when Alan Lomax recorded him at the plantation where he worked in 1941 for his Library of Congress Recordings. He soon left for Chicago and eventually started marking records, I Can't Be Satisfied being his first release in 1947. By the dawn of the '50s Waters and his band were recording classic tracks with a then brand-new electric sound (Still a Fool, Hoochie Coochie Man, I'm Ready, etc.) and getting a reputation as the meanest blues band in town. Waters projected a strong, virile persona through his songs and performances that was matched by the ferocity of his guitar playing and band. When rock and roll hit, blues record sales suffered but Waters continued making excellent records. By the 1960s Waters was no longer making as many classics, but the explosion of folk meant that acoustic blues were suddenly in favor and in demand. Waters reinvented himself briefly as an acoustic bluesman, before returning to the electric fold.

Although he never recorded records as groundbreaking as he did in the 1950s, Waters remained a powerful performer and continued to receive acclaim partly as a result of the Stones' and other blues-based rock bands' success.

The very name of the Stones, of course, comes from a 1950s Waters tune entitled Rollin' Stone. Apart from the songs themselves, which the Stones covered frequently in their early days and occasionally recorded (I Want to Be Loved, I Can't Be Satisfied, Look What You've Done) and still performed in later years (Mannish Boy, I Just Want to Make Love to You), the take-no-prisoners quality of his music and the somewhat macho/arrogant persona projected through his songs have become staples of the Stones themselves. Mick, in particular, has always nursed great affection and admiration for Waters and has said that he is his favorite bluesman. The swagger and occasional machismo and in Mick's stage presence and vocal delivery is definitely in part an inheritance from Waters. In the prowling, I'll-get-what-I-want Jagger persona, some of Waters' soul is present. Meanwhile the dual guitar interplay in Waters' band (as in Wolf's band) has also been, of course, a defining characteristic and extremely important element of the Stones' musical approach.

The band first met Waters in June 1964 when they arrived for the first American tour and stopped at Chess Studios in Chicago to record. Individual Stones later had the occasion to play with him. Bill Wyman was part of his backing band at a festival in Switzerland in 1974. Perhaps the most memorable occasion was during the Stones' 1981 tour, during their stop in Chicago, when Mick, Keith and Woody got onstage and played with Waters and his band in a Chicago club. Waters died less than two years later.

I have several memories of Muddy Waters. The weirdest one is when we first went into Chess Studios in '64, the first time we came here... There's Phil Chess and there's Ron Malo, the engineer, and this guy in white overalls painting the ceiling. As we walked by into the studio, somebody said, Oh, by the way, this is Muddy Waters, and he's painting the ceiling. He wasn't selling records at the time, and this is the way he got treated... I'm dying, right? I get to meet The Man - he's my fucking god, right - and he's painting the ceiling! And I'm gonna work in his studios. Ouch! Oh, this is the record business, right?... And bless him. When we started the Rolling Stones, we were just little kids, right? We felt we had some of the licks down, but our aim was to turn other people on to Muddy Waters.

                                                   - Keith Richards, 1992

When I started out, they called my music nigger music. People wouldn't let that kind of music into the house. The Beatles started, but the Rolling Stones really made my kind of music acceptable. I really respect them for opening doors for black music. The Stones made all that possible. I'll tell ya, the guitar player ain't bad either.

                                                   - Muddy Waters

(Muddy)'s my man. He's the guy I listened to... I felt an immediate affinity when I heard Muddy go [picks up guitar and plays the opening lick from Rollin' Stone]. You can't be harder than that, man. He said it all right there. So all I want to do is be able to do that.

                                                   - Keith Richards, 1992

Muddy, he's the boss, the daddy of 'em all. I love the way he did everything. The man!

                                                   - Ron Wood, 1994

I'll always like Muddy Waters till the day I die. Nothing's gonna change that.

                                                   - Mick Jagger, 1983



Born in Mississippi, harmonica player Rice Miller was just another itinerant blues player in the 1930s, using the moniker Little Boy Blue (which inspired Mick to name his first group). He worked with artists in rural blues clubs ("juke joints") with the likes of Robert Johnson and Robert Nighthawk. In the 1940s he settled in West Arkansas, near Memphis, and hosted a radio show where he performed and pretended to be Sonny Boy Williamson (John Lee) in order to gain notoriety (which worked). Among other things, he helped Elmore James get his start.

This second "Williamson", who had a great harmonica playing style all his own, went on to record in the early 1950s. He was finally signed to Chess Records and moved to Chicago in 1955, where he started producing classics like Don't Start Me to Talkin'. When the folk and blues boom hit, Williamson started traveling regularly to Europe, where he eventually toured with the Yardbirds and the Animals. He died of a heart attack back home in the Mississippi.

Though the Stones never recorded or played his songs onstage, Williamson was another favorite of theirs and, individually or together, they have jammed on his songs throughout the years.

Written by Ian McPherson, 2000, 2012.
Like all files on Time Is On Our Side, it is the exclusive intellectual property
of Ian McPherson and cannot be duplicated, in any form, without his authorization.

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