What’s great about going to live music shows is you never know who might drop by: here’s a great one from 1981 at the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago when Jagger and company dropped in on Muddy Waters. Wouldn’t you have loved to have been there for that jam?
Some interesting background on The Rolling Stones in this Muddy Waters encounter involves a bit of a tale of their early blues influences through the sharing of the blues from America to Europe.
In an article from The Guardian (2009, Apr. 30) covering the release of the BBC’s Blues Britannia “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites”, Keith Richards recalled that, when he was a child, his mum was playing Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine which almost surrepititiously embedded blues into her son. (1)
“You know,” Richard said, “I didn’t think in terms of black or white then. You didn’t know whether Chuck Berry was black or white – it was not a concern. It was just what came to my ears and what it did to you.” – (2) from The BBC’s “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?”)
Musician and writer Robert Palmer, in his volume Deep Blues (subtitled: A Musical and Cultural History, from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago’s South Side to the World), traced the influence of Muddy Waters in England to the efforts of Big Bill Broonzy, who, Palmer wrote, by being “one of the friendliest and most helpful of the blues stars from the thirties when Muddy first arrived in Chicago, had paved the way.” (3) (1981, Viking Penguins, Inc., Palmer, R. Deep Blues, p. 256-259) Broonzy had already been a hit with the Europeans in London and Paris during the 1950s. But when Broonzy fell into ill-health in 1958, he suggested that Muddy Waters be brought over in his stead.
Now, here’s where Palmer’s storyline gets interesting – and I can bet sure money that musicians and fans alike understand the fickle nature of musical fusions. In this case, Broonzy passing Muddy Waters to fans in England perhaps had a critical omission that involved something called “skiffle”, which Palmer describes as “a kind of an English version of American ‘folk blues'”. Skiffle spread in popularity partly from a hit recording by Lonnie Donegan (The Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group) – of a Leadbelly song “Rock Island Line”. (1)
The Leadbelly version:
(Which version do you prefer? Yeah, me, too.)
Back to Muddy Waters going to Europe:
Apparently Muddy Waters either didn’t get the skiffle memo or he simply assumed that his Chicago style of amplified electric guitar was why England loved his predecessors (Broonzy, Josh White, Terry and McGhee – Palmer, pg 257). So, Waters’ was surprised with reviewers of his concerts begging him to turn down his amplifiers. (1)
Muddy Waters figured out that the fans in England were more accustomed to a “softer, older blues” sound and turned down the amps. (1) His accommodation soon gained great success in England. (1)
And this is the part of the story where the boomerang swings back to the United States.
With Waters success in England, jazz and folk fans in the United States started taking greater notice – and Waters was booked to do a July 4 blues segment at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival (a mostly affluent white cultured jazz crowd in addition to young college students).
What happened next nearly didn’t happen because a mob of 10,000 college students (attempting to gain access to the festival) stormed the festival grounds and the rest of the festival was called off except for the Sunday afternoon blues show. Which = Muddy Waters. (1)
Muddy had been over in England stroking audiences’ sweet spots at the end of his shows with “Got My Mojo Working” and honing his showmanship on the appreciative Brits. So, Waters was more than ready to finish with a song that didn’t even make the r&b charts when he recorded it in 1957 – but left a new set of fans whistling it as they left the Newport festival in 1960. (1)
Some credit must also be given here to poet Langston Hughes who came on stage at the very end of the festival and read a poem he had hastily crafted on the back of a blank Western Union telegram called: “Goodbye Newport Blues”, which was then sung by Otis Spann in an impromptu performance. (Palmer, pg. 259) Turns out it wasn’t the end of the festival but this event is credited with sealing the happy fate of the blues with broader and younger audience. (1)
Unmistakably there was some luck involved for Waters’ success but there was also a healthy heaping of patience and persistence. While he did team up with a new manager, Bob Messinger, it was still two more years before the dam broke for Waters as emerging English rock groups like The Rolling Stones began singing the praises of Muddy Waters in interviews about what musicians influenced their own sounds. (1)
The Rolling Stones name their band after a Muddy Waters song “Rollin’ Stone”:
So, that Mick Jagger drop in on Muddy Waters at the Checkerboard Lounge was a nod from the youth to the elder and an embrace that elder extended to the young – a mutual respect and understanding that is often found on the platform of music.
As for naming (or re-naming) their band in 1962 from the Blues Boys…they were on the phone with Jazz News magazine and asked during that interview what the name of their band was and the band’s founder Brian Jones, looking down at his Muddy Waters record, a panicked Jones said: “Rollin’ Stones.”
(1) I want to extend credit and special thanks to Robert Palmer, (author, musician, Yale professor of American music and founder and organizer of the Memphis Blues festivals during the 1960s) for the rich information he acquired and documented in his volume Deep Blues, A Musical and Cultural History, from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago’s South Side. Viking Penguin, 1981.
(2) Thanks goes to the BBC for their documentary interview with Keith Richards for Blues Britannia: “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?” 2009.
(3) And to The Guardian for their excerpted piece from that documentary, an article entitled: ‘I loved rock’n’roll – but then we found the blues’, an interview with Keith Richards.
(4.) Thanks also to the fine people who have shared their videos generously on youtube so that these stories gain even richer value with actual footage of events.