Pre-electric non-Chicago blues
To the same generation of artists that represented
a transition between the Delta acoustic blues players and the Chicago electric
players of he 1950s, were musicians who operated outside of Chicago but
who also worked in cities in the 1930s and '40s or who in other ways represented
a further evolution of early acoustic blues. The most important are perhaps
Leroy Carr, based in Indianapolis, who was a great influence on Robert
Johnson among others, and the legendary Robert Johnson himself.
LEROY CARR (1905-1935)
Born in Nashville, Carr moved to Indianapolis at a young age where he played most of his life. He was a tremendously gifted blues pianist, vocalist and songwriter, who was one of the first players, before the electric age, to "city-fy" the blues. He played in non-rural areas and his music and lyrics were informed with city themes. He had a lengthy association with guitarist Scrapper Blackwell. Carr was slightly isolated from some of his contemporaries (Broonzy, Tampa Red), in that he did not establish himself as part of the Chicago scene.
Like many people of this generation, Carr was more of an indirect influence
on the Stones. Certainly his piano playing laid down the framework for
piano blues. He also wrote classic songs, and had an approach, that influenced
Johnson tremendously. (Johnson borrowed from some of his themes and
lyrics.) Carr had a severe alcohol problem and died at age 30 because of
ROBERT JOHNSON (1911-1938)
Along with Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson is revered as the greatest and most influential of all blues musicians, period.
Born in Mississippi like his fellow Delta players Charley Patton and Son House, Johnson was a generation or half-a-generation younger. He attempted to sit at some of these players' performances but would often be laughed at because of his age. With time, however, he developed an incredible slide guitar talent by studying his heroes, especially Son House. He also eventually, through listening to their records, rewrote some of their songs (Skip James' 22-20 Blues, House's Walkin' Blues).
Johnson had wider horizons, however. Younger and taking advantage of phonograph records, he was influenced by more urbanized players such as the great blues-jazz guitarist Lonnie Johnson (who also influenced B. B. King a lot), who hailed from Louisiana and was a blues player but a tremendously talented and sophisticated one, and who played in the 20s and 30s with jazz ensembles like Duke Ellington's and Louis Armstrong's. Another city-playing influence was Indianapolis pianist Leroy Carr, whose work he also learned from his records and from whom he reworked musical themes and lyrics.
Johnson brought together all these influences into something very unique and tremendously sophisticated. His songs, vocal style and especially guitar playing brought country blues to an entirely new level. His ability to play and sustain different rhythmic patterns simultaneously on the guitar, in addition to singing and using things like slide, made him sound as if there was more than one person playing. All of his songs (Terraplane Blues, Me and the Devil Blues, Crossroad Blues, Ramblin' on My Mind, Sweet Home Chicago) have become blues classics. Johnson recorded all of his sides at the tail end of the Depression, in 1936 and 1937 and became a much-in-demand artist. He was murdered through poisoning in 1938 in mysterious circumstances.
Before Johnson influenced the Stones directly, of course, he was an incredible influence to all the great Chicago electric blues players and beyond, especially artists like Elmore James and Muddy Waters. But even though they were not initially playing his songs, the Stones knew about him very early on. Keith tells about it in the liner notes to Johnson's Complete Recordings, released on Columbia in 1990.
Brian Jones had the first album, and that's where I first heard it. I'd just met Brian, and I went around to his apartment - crash pad, actually, all he had in it was a chair, a record player, and a few records. One of which was Robert Johnson. He put it on, and it was just - you know - astounding stuff. When I first heard it, I said to Brian, Who's that? Robert Johnson, he said. Yeah, but who's the other guy playing with him? Because I was hearing two guitars, and it took me a long time to realize he was actually doing it all by himself... (T)he guitar playing - it was almost like listening to Bach. You know, you think you're getting a handle on playing the blues, and then you hear Robert Johnson - some of the rhythms he's doing and playing and singing at the same time, you think, This guy must have 3 brains!... You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it.
Eventually, when the Stones' initial touring slowed down and the guys had a chance to really start listening to music, Robert Johnson was someone they learned to appreciate more and cover. The Stones performed his rendition of Walkin' Blues at the Rock and Roll Circus event in 1968, and also arranged an extraordinary version of his Love in Vain Blues for Let It Bleed. A few years later, they also recorded Stop Breaking Down Blues for Exile on Main Street.
For a time we thought the songs that were on that first album were the only recordings he'd made, and then suddenly around '67 or '68 up comes this second (bootleg) collection that included Love in Vain. Love in Vain was such a beautiful song. Mick and I both loved it, and at the time I was working and playing around with Gram Parsons, and I started searching around for a different way to present it, because if we were going to record it there was no point in trying to copy the Robert Johnson style or ways and styles. We took it a little bit more country, a little bit more formalized, and Mick felt comfortable with that.
In the 1980s, Keith was approached with the idea of making a movie about Johnson, but the idea never materialized.
(I would have loved to have seen him live.) Just to see how he did it, man. Just one time. He was a flash. I spoke to Son House about him... If Johnson had just been a little nicer to his chicks, knew how to play the ladies a little better, then he might have been there instead of Muddy. I have the feeling he would have gone into a band thing... When you listen to him, the cat's got Bach going on down low and Mozart going up high. The cat was counterpointing and using incredible shit.
BUKKA WHITE (1906-1977)
Born in Mississippi, Bukka White did not get a chance to get in the recording craze of the late 1920s and 1930s like fellow Delta musicians Charley Patton, Son House and company. Instead his early recordings were made in the late 30s and early 40s. His sound was unusual, because his songs were melodically very spare but he was more rhythmic in his approach than other country bluesmen, and played a big-sounding steel National guitar. His songs were often dark and sad, the result of his having spent extensive time in prison. He was "re-discovered" in the 1960s along with many other bluesmen and enjoyed a new career.
Bukka White was one of the first acoustic blues players that the Stones knew of. In 1962 they were already performing White's classic Shake 'Em On Down. During the recordings sessions for his third solo album in 1992, Mick hired a blues band (the Red Devils) to record some unreleased blues numbers and he did a great version of this track
Wherever I go I still try and see whoever I can, I've heard is good, or still alive. I saw Arthur Crudup and Bukka White last time (we toured). Incredible... I learned a lot watching Bukka White play. He taught me the tuning and I got behind it.
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