The Rolling Stone recalls the groundbreaking US guitarists who shook 60s London.
The blues is the spine that runs through the 56-year history of the Rolling Stones. In October 1961, it forged the band’s nucleus of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, as the future songwriting partnership compared Chess vinyl on the platform of Dartford railway station. The blues was the bedrock of the band’s breakout early sets, and drove their imperious turn-of-thedecade hot streak, when albums such as 1969’s Let It Bleed, 1971’s Sticky Fingers and 1972’s Exile On Main St paid open tribute to the big blues beasts of Chicago and Mississippi.
Even in 1981, at the band’s commercial peak, the superstar lineup shrunk back to wide-eyed fanboys as they guested with Muddy Waters at the Windy City’s Checkerboard Lounge. And now, as Ronnie Wood reminds us, that formative influence still has plenty of fuel, sparking the release of the Stones’ acclaimed 2016 covers album Blue & Lonesome, and a brand-new compilation, Confessin’ The Blues, with a tracklisting chosen personally by the Stones.
Do you think the Stones would exist without the blues? Definitely not. We’re all walking libraries of different aspects of the music. I suppose Keith would say that he’s the biggest blues fan. But then the knowledge Mick has is unbelievable. Charlie goes right across the blues into jazz. I come from the soul side. And it all connects. It’s this wonderful blend. I think that everyone in the new generation should take a leaf out of the blues and have a smattering of it in their diets. Because music ain’t going anywhere without it.
How did you discover that music, and what was your reaction? When I was just a little kid in short pants, my brothers – who were eight and ten years older than me – would bring home songs like Smokestack Lightning from Howlin’ Wolf, and Hoochie Coochie Man by Muddy Waters. Those were some of the first blues songs that I ever heard. God knows where they found the albums. Then I did a lot of research, started discovering Chuck Berry and learning his stuff. I grew up learning Big Bill Broonzy’s Guitar Shuffle. That’s where I came in, really.
What drew you to the great blues guitarists?
When some of those blues guys came over from America, my brother Art backed up Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf, and it was amazing for little Ronnie to meet these guys first-hand. The blues sounded dangerous. That’s the right word. Because these men were dangerous. You didn’t mess with them. They’d been through a lot of hardships – that’s where the blues comes from. They were used to being treated badly, and they didn’t mind dishing out a bit of that punishment, too, if you crossed them. But underneath they were really soft. They just wanted to be nice people, but they’d been treated so bad, you can’t blame them for the attitude they had. I mean, Chuck Berry had quite a vicious attitude – quite nasty – about people stealing his songs and not giving him credit. So did Bo Diddley. And they were right, people did nick that Bo Diddley beat, and a lot of Chuck Berry’s songs, and they never got the credit or saw the money. So you can’t blame them. How much of an impression do you think the blues titans make on sixties London?
They didn’t know the impact they had on us. They were just playing from the heart. Steve Cropper has become a good friend of mine, and over the years he’s told me that he had no idea of the impact of all the songs he played on – the Sam & Dave stuff, the Otis Redding stuff, Booker T and The M.G.’s – on the English R&B and soul scene. I mean, he played on things like In The Midnight Hour by Wilson Pickett, and that song was just like a way of life for us. But he thought it was just a riff. He once told me: “I just put my fingers where all the white dots were on the guitar!”
So when the blues guys came over to England I think they were pleasantly surprised. Muddy used to love us boys. He always used to think I was in the Stones before I was even in them. He’d go:
“My man from the Rolling Stones!” And I’d go: “I’m not in ’em yet, Muddy!” Then one year he saw me in The Speakeasy and I said:
“I’m finally in that band that you always thought I was gonna be in, Muddy!” He was a real gentleman, and a natural with the slide. He actually lent me his slide once. It was the tiniest little slide bar, about half an inch long. After I’d finished the song he said, ‘Can I have my slide back?” He was so possessive about material things. I don’t blame him – I was gonna steal it!
Which blues tunes made the biggest mark on you?
Blues opened up a whole world to me. There was classic stuff like Little Queenie from Chuck Berry. Robert Johnson, who sounded like an orchestra. Elmore James’s Dust My Broom. That’s where Fleetwood Mac started – they based all their songs around that lick back in the old Peter Green days. Everybody took a different direction. Y’know, Eric Clapton was with John Mayall and they’d do Otis Rush’s I Can’t Quit You Baby – which we did on the Blue & Lonesome album.
It’s funny, a lot of these songs, they come back around. BB King was just such an innovator. Jimi Hendrix gave me the [King’s] Live At The Regal album. I think it’s Eric Clapton’s favourite album as well. That was just a real eye-opener. And it always will be, as to how to play the blues live if you’re a guitar player. Buddy Guy’s still around. He was a real founder of the blues, and the youngster of the pack. I remember meeting him in Bill Wyman’s room in Chicago – Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, all in the same room! They had a lot of respect for each other, but they were all jesting that the other guy couldn’t play.
Was there any debate between the members of the Stones over the content of Confessin’ The Blues?
Not really. We let Mick take the helm and we all put our input in. The great thing is, there’s such an incredible amount of broad coverage here, such a great cross-section of artists. Like Eddie Taylor and all these undiscovered people that I think kids today should be listening to. It still sounds fresh. It makes me happy to think that a new generation of musicians will get a huge buzz from this – and hopefully meet their future wife listening to!”
Confessin’ The Blues is out now via BMG/Universal.