By Ian McPherson (All rights reserved, 2000.)
I Got the Blues
All That Jazz
Although there were overlaps, the five original Rolling Stones each had distinctive musical tastes growing up. Mick Jagger's original band, Little Boy Blue & the Blue Boys, played rock and roll and rhythm and blues: Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino. But Mick was also, of course, an early - and rare (for Britain) - disciple of 1950s Chicago electric blues: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter and company.
I was crazy over Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and Fats Domino, not knowing what it meant, just that it was beautiful. My father used to call it jungle music and I used to say, Yeah, that's right, jungle music, that's a very good description. Every time I heard it,I just wanted to hear more. It seemed like the most real thing I'd ever known. I became interested in blues firstly when I found out that it as much as existed. It was never played on the radio and, if it was, it was only by accident.
Waters and Mick
(Blues) had two things going, really: It had the emotional thing of bad times and broken hearts, which everyone could understand, and it had the upbeat thing of the dance. It was a moving dance music. And as far as white people were concerned, it was interesting to them, especially white sort of suburban kids, which is really what rock music appeals to, because it was underclass music. It was music from an underclass that they had no experience of, or, in fact, that didn't even exist by the time that they got to it anyway - almost. It was disappearing. That culture was on the way out. It had a certain appeal that rap music would have to middle-class children.
Keith Richards' tastes were also varied. His two original loves seemed to have been country music and rock and roll - his first favorite record reportedly being Elvis Presley's Sun Sessions. His exposure to the blues came first at art school through acoustic blues and folk of the 30s and 40s, although Keith's enthusiasm always tended more towards rock and roll. With Chuck Berry becoming his idol.
There were a lot of guitar players around then (at art school), playing anything from Big Bill Broonzy to Woody Guthrie. I also got hung up on Chuck Berry, though what I was playing was the art school stuff, the Guthrie sound and blues. Not really blues, mostly ballads and Jesse Fuller stuff.
Chuck was my man. He was the one that made me say, I want to play guitar, Jesus Christ! And I'd listened to guitar players before that - I was about 15 - and I'd think, He's very interesting, nice, ah, but... With the difference between what I'd heard before 1956 or '57
In the case of Brian Jones, he seemed to have been a fervent fan of jazz when he grew up, playing clarinet and saxophone, but then fell in love in an equally radical way with electric Chicago blues - his favorite artist being Elmore James. Whereas Mick and Keith's tastes were more eclectic and included both blues and rock and roll, Brian prided himself, at the time he met the Twins, on his exclusive devotion to the blues.
Bill Wyman, on the other hand, was virtually ignorant of the blues when he met the Stones. Coming from a more working-class background, his knowledge and experience of music rested primarily within the parameters of pop music and rock and roll.
The first person I heard who I thought was really amazing was Les Paul. He was the one who turned me on to the sound of guitar music. I was listening to singers before that, mostly English ones doing covers of American hits by people like Frankie Laine and Kay Starr. Johnnie Ray was one of the first to make me really open my ears. That was like 2 or 3 years before Elvis. (In my teens, during my military service in Germany), I was hearing things like the Grand Ole Opry show when I'd never heard country music before. I used to really like waking up at 6:00 AM before we'd go on duty and lie in bed and listen to all the great singers like Roy Acuff and Flatt & Scruggs... Then we started to hear things like Bill Haley and Elvis, and then Little Richard and Chuck Berry. I saw Berry in a film called Rock Rock Rock where he was playing You Can't Catch Me and I was completely won over.
And last but not least, Charlie Watts, as is well known among Stones fan, was NOT a fan of rock and roll in any way. His true love had always been jazz. But by playing in Alexis Korner's band in 1962, he was being introduced to the meeting of jazz with blues, and to a lesser extent with rhythm and blues.
I had an incredible loathing of rock and roll. If you liked jazz you didn't touch rock and roll.
As the Stones came together and formed in that pivotal year of 1962, a melting pot of each member's influences was created to a degree. Bill, for example, was introduced by the others to blues in its pure form.
(Chuck Berry) was the one artist I was able to be on par with. When the Stones talked music I knew Chuck Berry, but I'd never heard Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters. The music seemed to be very simple but later you learned that it was quite hard to be simple.
While Keith managed to convince Brian about the worthiness of Chuck Berry, despite the "commercial" aspects of his music.
Brian was into one kind of blues. Although he'd heard Chuck Berry, he had never heard the kind of stuff WE were into. We turned Brian on to the fact that Chuck Berry really was hardly different from Muddy Waters or Jimmy Reed. Berry was just more modern and commercial. In Chuck Berry, Brian suddenly saw a way of doing what he wanted to do. He saw mass acceptance that he had never thought of before.
Our common ground with Brian then was Elmore James and Muddy Waters. We laid Slim Harpo on him, and Fred McDowell.
And Charlie was eventually similarly maneuvered and influenced.
We must have convinced (Charlie) that what we played wasn't rock and roll. We did play a little blues. But even now I don't see much difference in blues and rock and roll.
I practiced at home to jazz records all the time. The only rock and roll I ever listened to was after the Stones turned me on to it. I used to like Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley and from there I went on to, who's that guy (Roy Orbison), Ooh Poo Pah Doo, and slowly I got on to hearing how good the early Elvis records were.
I learned the blues through a man called Cyril Davies, and Alexis Korner. From them two I met Brian first, and then Mick and Keith... 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... If you're talking about sort of rural blues, Chicago blues, no, I didn't know any of them, really. Cyril was the first one to play me Muddy Waters.
Gathering around the blues scene in London that was centered around Alexis Korner and Chris Barber, however, the Stones all became, in their minds if not in actual fact, exclusive blues fanatics. Although their tastes and repertoire included so-called rock and roll (Chuck Berry, the Coasters, Bo Diddley) - they prided themselves on being a blues band, and NOT a rock and roll band. In any case, the infatuation, probably equally concerned with the image as with the music itself, was with black American music, rather than white.
We were a blues band, serious, very serious.
When we discussed it, we were like students. You know how students get
serious about things? It was almost a theological dispute with us. Mostly
it was really imaginary and we were just goofing off as they say. But we
didn't want to be called a rock band. We wanted to be a blues band but
we gave that up as it was
a waste of time. Keith insisted on saying we were a blues band anyway. We couldn't do R&B exactly right. So we had to do it our way. You can't do things the way other people do them. You've got to do things your way. Perhaps it was lucky.
We weren't a pop band, we just got together and played the blues music we liked to play. And if we could play in front of a few people who liked it - well, that was the ultimate at that time... We didn't even face the audience. We used to take stools with us, these old rusty metal stools, and we'd sit on these and never face the audience, let alone play it... We used the harmonica a lot back then - in a different way than the Beatles did on Love Me Do - and maracas, tambourines and that Bo Diddley jungle rhythm format. We tried to get that really earthy thing because we liked it. It wasn't fake. It wasn't pseudo. It was really down to earth and very, VERY exciting. We'd play this stuff to people's faces and we'd see their mouths gape.
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. I mean, we were carrying flags, idealistic teenage sort of shit: No way we think anybody is really going to seriously listen to us. As long as we can get a few people interested in listening to the shit we think they ought to listen to - which is very elitist and arrogant, to think you can tell other people what to listen to, but that was our aim, to turn people onto the blues. If we could turn them on to Muddy and Jimmy Reed and Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker, then our job was done.
We thought, sure, we'd love to make records, but we're not in that league. 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. That was the total original aim.
Unfortunately Brian had this insane drive to be famous. And he had all this ambition that Keith and I didn't have. Brian also had this obsession about getting rhythm and blues across to the public and EDUCATING them. That struck us as being half-way there as were interested in conversion too but not to that degree.
(Muddy Waters) is my man. He's the guy I listened to. Maybe I just picked... up (the primal, almost sexual energy with which I play guitar) off of him. It was just the same as my drive. I felt an immediate affinity when I heard Muddy go (plays the 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.
Well, I think they're the greatest R&B band that ever came out of Britain. I still do. I don't see any reason to change that opinion, you know (laughs). THEY'VE played blues the way I hear blues: SOLIDLY, right the way through. Blues is not a form, it's the sound that some people make when they play. So they remain for me the finest R&B band that's ever come out of Britain.
Well, you know - you go in and out of these things. I get fed up with it after a while. You think, I know it, I've heard it, it's all in my head. I don't need to put records on. It's different when you're actually playing it or seeing it - that's something else. But listening to blues records sometimes gets to be a bit... But sometimes you go back to it and you say,
Playing amongst the Korner scene, however, the Stones quickly realized that they were not in actuality purists - or not in the same way that Korner was. Korner and Chris Barber's styles merged traditional jazz, skiffle and acoustic blues, whereas the Stones were decidedly rockier - their blues was fervently electric and RHYTHMIC. And included material by artists (Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley) that was often categorized as rhythm and blues instead of rock and roll primarily because they were black rather than white (Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley).
By (1962) we'd all got into Muddy Waters so when we saw Blues Inc. (Alexis Korner's band in London) it was like suddenly being in the South Side of Chicago. At first we were very impressed. We thought we'd never be able to get that good. But after going about two weeks we realized they were ultra-purists and bluesy. It seemed even Alexis was still part of that traditional jazz scene. We wanted to play some REAL R&B. Then we started getting self-righteous. THEY were playing electric blues but WE wanted to do something more rock and rolly but still with an R&B feel.
(Alexis Korner and Chris Barber) had THEIR approach from the jazz angle, you know, Big Joe Williams, and the country stuff like Broonzy and Leadbelly and you know... They were kind of... they were rather half-folkies, half-jazz people. They were trying it from their angle but they didn't believe that rock and roll had a connection with it. They didn't see the connection. They missed Darwin, the missing link. When Alexis used to, you know, when he'd ask me and Mick to do a song... he'd say, Here's a couple of boys from out of town, you know, and he'd say, What are you gonna play? and we'd say Roll Over Beethoven! Alex would take a very large swallow and his Adam's apple would go up and he'd put his thumb pick through a couple of strings and he'd say, Um... terribly sorry, ol' boy, I've broken a string... (laughs) I'll leave it up to you.
It was like watching a lot of white people trying to play the blues. And we were much different. We used to laugh and call them a bunch of jazzers. It just wasn't our kind of blues. We knew that we could do it better. And we DID it a lot better. Seeing Alexis (Korner) didn't really give me confidence. It meant there was somewhere to play. At the time it was nice.
Priding themselves on their difference, the Stones also had to face the obstacles of a London club scene that was dominated by jazz. In less than 18 months, however, they managed to topple the scene with their brand of energetic rhythm and blues.
It is most apparent that Rock and Roll has
a far greater affinity for R&B than the latter has for Jazz, insofar
that Rock and Roll is a direct corruption of Rhythm and Blues
whereas Jazz is Negro music on a different plane, intellectually higher but emotionally less intense.
and Buddy Guy, 1974
At the start, nobody in England played our kind of music. But nobody. Mick and Keith and Brian were about the only people in the country that knew the music and were trying to play it. Everybody else were jazz musicians trying to play the blues, that hadn't really heard them. And having seen the Stones once at the Marquee, the people who were running the scene in those days were 100% against us, and it was one bloody fight to get anywhere. They thought R&B was a jazz thing and there should be 3 saxophones. They said, What? Two guitars and a bass guitar? That's rock and roll - we don't want to know about it, we'll try and put it down.
We knew all along, you see. The blues was real. We only had to persuade people to listen to the music, and they couldn't help but be turned on to all those great old blues cats. I'd been through the jazz scene, and I knew that it had to die because it was so full of crap and phony musicians who could hardly play their instruments. And Keith knew a bit about the ordinary pop scene, so he knew what a lot of rubbish that was. We didn't like being hard-up, but we put up with it because it was the price we had to pay to play decent music. Plus we were beginning to sense that more and more people were getting sick of traditional jazz, and they were looking around for something that was different - and we all knew that something was us.
Singlehandedly, we discover we've stabbed Dixieland jazz to death (in London), it's really just collapsed, all because of us. Brian was so pleased to see the last jazz band disband and us taking over the clubs, it was his happiest, proudest moment.
Not a pure blues band, the Stones in their foundation years should more appropriately be called a rhythm and blues band. When once glances at their stage material in those first years (1962-63) (see my List of the Songs the Stones Have Played Live), the Stones' material covers a spectrum that runs from electric Chicago blues (but at this stage no deeper into the blues - they certainly were not playing blues, which is to say acoustic blues, prior to the late 1940s, with the exception of an occasional Bukka White number) to rock and roll with a rhythm and blues base (Chuck Berry, Coasters, Fats Domino).
It is informative when one compares the music of what (in my opinion anyway) seems to be the 4 most important influences on the Stones' early material: Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed (again, glance at the list to see the extent with which their material was played). The differences and similarities of the music of each of these four black male musicians express something about where the musical heart of the Stones centers. At one end we have Muddy Waters, who is the essence of fat-bottomed, full-of-attitude electric Chicago blues, where rhythm, though it varies, is frequently slower than rock and roll, but almost always hard-driving. Jimmy Reed, on the other hand, is less frequently admired by blues afficionadoes than Waters or Howlin' Wolf or John Lee Hooker, but significantly he achieved the most chart success in the 1950s. Primarily because his recordings were simple and more melodic and therefore commercially viable than most blues songs. He is at the very edge of where blues meets rhythm and blues (and then rock and roll). Further down the line, we have Bo Diddley, where the rhythm is definitely now more accentuated. The blues here is more of a colour than an actual form. With his highly distinctive rhythmic style, Diddley is "pure" rhythm and blues: the rhythm dominates and his music itself illustrates in trying to separate precisely R&B from rock and roll. Finally, with Chuck Berry we arrive at the more "rock and roll-ish" of the four artists - who achieved great success (more than Diddley) AS a rock and roller. But nevertheless black-informed blues and boogie-woogie, rather than country & rockabilly, is more evident as the source of his music than Buddy Holly or Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis.
If (the Stones') music recalled any single antecedent it was Chuck Berry, but never with his total commitment to fun.
(The Stones) played their shit. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, things that weren't too difficult. But they were playing with guts and conviction. They were playing blues, but they weren't an academic blues band. The Rolling Stones were more like a rebellion... (It) was a ritual thing, and the Stones were nothing but ritual, really. In the end (at the Crawdaddy Club) people just went berserk... And that was the angle, really. Cause the Stones, man, the great supporters of the Stones were guys, young guys.
(The Stones could be the world's greatest rock and roll band but) they may not be ENGLAND'S greatest rock 'n' roll band. They came from the London suburbs so they didn't have anything like the roots in British folk music or British popular entertainment which the Beatles had. Nor did they come out of an indigenous British social movement, as The Who came out of Mod... The Stones created themselves by re-working the music they listened to on Chess, Motown and Atlantic records...
The whole thing, the social thing behind R&B in England was being attuned to it, being able to relate to it. You see, someone like Fabian was a rather American, a rather foreign thing to Britain. Somehow, this traditional jazz was definitely an indigenous style, it was ratherBritish. And the skiffle thing was certainly British in sound and the British blues was very British in sound really. We were trying our darndest, Mick tries his darndest to sing like Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley, but he still sounds like Mick Jagger. I mean we are, after all, English, we can't help it, or change it, no matter what we do... R&B is American, but it's a different part of the American culture. I have a feeling that the black culture is closer to the English culture than the American culture is.
(My tastes are) rhythm and blues mostly - that's for sure. I dig people like Solomon Burke, who doesn't mean much in (England), and Chuck Berry, who means a lot. And Chuck is such a marvellous songwriter, too. Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley - they're also for me.
Without Chuck Berry I don't think music would be where it is today. That's how great he is, but I owe that all to Keith. He taught me to appreciate something like Havana Moon(a slow, bluesy tune of Berry's) more than Johnny B. Goode.
They did Jimmy Reed really well. It's not so much that Jimmy Reed is difficult, it's the timing, the tempo, the beat is very important; it's got to be fast/slow, you know? (laughs) A fast/slow thing... and to keep the tension is not easy and Keith knew that inside out...
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