The Rolling Stones have churned out so many classics over the past several decades that they, in my opinion, epitomize the very essence of rock ‘n’ roll and the rock ‘n’ roll attitude more than any other band. Just about anyone, regardless of age, can name at least one of their songs or name at least one band member.
The Stones began in 1962 as a rhythm and blues outfit, taking their name from a Muddy Waters song, the two-part “Rolling Stone” from 1950, itself a remake of “Catfish Blues,” recorded in 1941 by Robert Petway.
[pullquote-left]The Stones epitomize the very essence of rock and roll[/pullquote-left]Two years later in 1964, the band came to the USA, putting the British beat on American blues and R&B, thus introducing the music to American audiences; young people who, at that time, were completely unaware of the blues musicians from their own country.
Their first album, 1964’s The Rolling Stones, aka England’s Newest Hit Makers, consists largely of blues and R&B classics, with the exception of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”.
“I Just Want To Make Love To You,” the third track on the album, was first recorded by Muddy Waters in 1954 for Chess Records. The Stones take the song at a fast and exciting pace – the opposite of Muddy’s slow and seductive version, most likely recorded that way in order to match the song’s sexy title.
Also on the album is “I’m A King Bee,” the Slim Harpo swamp blues chestnut from 1957 (its B-side was “Got Love If You Want It,” itself covered by countless acts over the years). To be honest, I’m not crazy about the Stones’ performance of “I’m A King Bee”. To me, they sound unsure of themselves, vocally and musically. Harpo, on the other hand, exerts a menacing cool; a confidence in his abilities to “make honey” with his queen if she lets him “come inside”. As Mick Jagger stated in 1968, “..What’s the point in listening to us doing ‘I’m A King Bee’ when you can hear Slim Harpo do it?” Bloody well said, Mick! Check out the Stones’ cover of Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips” from 1972’s Exile On Main Street. It’s just as good as, if not better than, the original.
Speaking of Exile On Main Street, the album features an excellent version of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down Blues,” recorded on June 20, 1937, for Vocalion. Mick Jagger’s raw vocal delivery fits the song’s lyrics perfectly. “Please stop breakin’ down…The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out, baby, it’ll make you lose your mind”. Simply classic.
“Confessin’ The Blues” was first recorded by Kansas City’s own Jay McShann in 1941, featuring the vocals of Walter Brown. Since then, the song has been recorded countless times over the years, including versions by Chuck Berry and Little Walter. The Rolling Stones’ version is featured on their second LP, 12×5, also released in 1964. While not a blues cover, the album also features the instrumental “2120 South Michigan Avenue” – then the address for Chess Records, the premier blues label in the ’50s and ’60s.
Their cover of “Little Red Rooster,” recorded in Chicago at the Chess studio, features Brian Jones on electric slide guitar. The song became a #1 UK hit when released there in November of ’64. It was released here in the States in April 1965 on the album The Rolling Stones, Now!, where it remained just another album track. On May 2, 1965, the Stones performed “Little Red Rooster” on The Ed Sullivan Show. Two and a half weeks later, on May 20th, the Stones taped a performance for the popular music show Shindig, doing so on the condition that they appear with either Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters. Wolf appeared, performing his 1951 classic “How Many More Years” with the Stones sitting at his feet like children in a classroom listening to their teacher – and in a very real sense, he was.
But getting back to “Little Red Rooster,” the song was originally recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in June 1961 as “The Red Rooster” and released as Chess single 1804. Writing credit is given to Willie Dixon, who may have gotten inspiration for the song from Memphis Minnie’s “If You See My Rooster (Please Run Him Home),” recorded for Vocalion on May 27, 1936.
“Down The Road Apiece,” also included on The Rolling Stones, Now!, was originally recorded by the Will Bradley Trio on August 12, 1940, for Columbia. The group consisted of white boogie woogie pianist Freddie Slack; Doc Goldberg on string bass; Ray McKinley on drums/vocal (McKinley was formerly the drummer for Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey); and Don Raye, the song’s composer, on vocal. The recording was made under the direction of Will Bradley. This original version exudes a laid-back cool. Six years later, on September 12, 1946, the song was kicked into overdrive by boogie master Amos Milburn, who recorded the song at his first session for Aladdin Records.
Among the tracks on The Rolling Stones’ 1968’s classic Beggars Banquet can be found a tune called “Prodigal Son”. The song was first recorded under the title “That’s No Way To Get Along” by Memphis blues singer and guitarist Robert Wilkins in September 1929 for Brunswick Records. In 1964, the song was revised by Wilkins himself on the LP Memphis Gospel Singer under the name “Prodigal Son,” most likely the source for the Stones version. Interestingly, on September 7, 1928, Wilkins also recorded a two-part “Rolling Stone” for Victor Records, bearing no resemblance to Muddy’s two-parter of the same name.
Let It Bleed, from 1969, is my wife’s favorite Stones album. It’s a terrific piece of work, containing the classics “Midnight Rambler,” “Gimme Shelter,” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. It also includes Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain,” originally recorded by Johnson on June 20, 1937, in turn taken from a composition by blues pianist Leroy Carr, who recorded the song on February 25, 1935, for Bluebird Records under the title “When The Sun Goes Down”. Robert Johnson incorporated Carr’s “Well, it’s hard to tell, hard to tell” and “hey vee oh woe” lyrics, and even threw in a line from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1926 recording “Dry Southern Blues” (“The blue light was my blues and the red light was my [worried] mind”). Even our heroes have their heroes.
The Stones’ version of “Love In Vain” is gorgeous, complete with a mandolin plucked by American guitarist Ry Cooder, a man who covered enough blues material to be the subject of a future Blues News article himself.
A live version of “Love In Vain” was included on their best live LP, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, released on September 4, 1970, but recorded late the previous year during their North American tour in support of Let It Bleed, which was released on November 28, 1969 (the album was recorded at New York’s Madison Square Garden on November 28th and 29th, roughly one week before the infamous Altamont gig on December 6th in which Stones fan Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death in front of the stage by a member of biker gang the Hell’s Angels as the Stones plowed through “Under My Thumb”. The Hell’s Angels were hired as “security” for $500 and all the beer they could drink. The event was filmed and released as Gimme Shelter and is available on DVD).
Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! features guitar great Mick Taylor, who left John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (Mayall: “The Godfather Of British Blues”) to replace original member Brian Jones, who drowned on July 3, 1969, at age 27. Jones, the band’s blues purist, wanted the Stones to remain true to their blues roots. He became increasingly overshadowed by Jagger and Richards and more unhappy with the original material they were writing. Brian Jones does, however, play on two tracks from Let It Bleed: percussion on “Midnight Rambler” and autoharp on “You Got The Silver”. Mick Taylor also plays on two tracks, trading licks with Keith Richards on “Live With Me” and slide guitar on “Country Honk,” a reworking of their 1968 single “Honky Tonk Women”.
The last Stones album to feature Taylor’s fretwork is 1974’s It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll. In 1975, he was replaced by Ron Wood, who remains a member of the Rolling Stones to this day.
Out of the May 1969 Let It Bleed sessions came the release of an album called Jamming With Edward, a six song informal jam recorded while the band waited for Keith Richards to, as Mick Jagger says in the liner notes, “get out of bed”. The album, released in 1972, features the Stones rhythm section of bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts along with Jagger, Ry Cooder, and the then very in demand session pianist Nicky Hopkins, the “Edward” in the album’s title.
One of those six songs is the blues classic “It Hurts Me Too,” often – and mistakenly – credited to Elmore James, the electric slide guitarist who traveled with Robert Johnson in the ’30s and recorded in the ’50s and early ’60s until his death in 1963. The song is so closely associated with James, however, that not many people realize that the song was composed and first recorded by Tampa Red on May 10, 1940, for Bluebird Records. Tampa Red re-recorded the song on March 24, 1949, as “When Things Go Wrong With You” for Victor (Bluebird’s “parent” company). While Elmore James didn’t write “It Hurts Me Too,” he was a major influence on the Rolling Stones. Bill Wyman: “Elmore James was a major, maybe even the main reason, why the Stones came about.”
In May 1970, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts were among the musicians included on The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, surrounding the great bluesman with young British musicians. In addition to Wyman and Watts, the album featured, among others, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Klaus Voorman, Ringo Starr (who plays on one track, “I Ain’t Superstitious”), and pianist Ian Stewart, often cited as “The Sixth Stone” due to his having played on countless Stones sessions. Though he didn’t perform, Mick Jagger was also in attendance. The album was released in the summer of 1971. In 2002, it was reissued as a 2-CD set containing twelve previously unreleased performances.
It is my opinion that the Rolling Stones’ finest hour, or 46 minutes and 27 seconds, is 1971’s Sticky Fingers. “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” the in-your-face “Bitch” (my favorite Stones track), the country flavored “Dead Flowers,” and the raw “Sway,” are just a few of the highlights on this masterpiece.
The album also includes a version of a song the Stones credit to bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell: “You Gotta Move”. Interestingly, the inside cover of the CD You Gotta Move [Arhoolie CD 304] shows McDowell with a copy of Sticky Fingers, one hand pulling on the famous zipper cover designed by Andy Warhol. The caption in part reads: “Fred McDowell celebrating having his song “You Gotta Move” released by the Rolling Stones on their Sticky Fingers LP”. In the spring of 1972, Arhoolie founder Chris Scratchwitz handed McDowell a royalty check. It’s nice to know that an elderly blues musician was financially recognized, but it doesn’t look like McDowell wrote it. A search through the Document Records database gives the earliest version of the song as by gospel group the Willing Four from 1943 [Vocal Quartets Volume 7: 1925-1943, DOCD 5543].
The song was recorded several more times during the 1940s, most notably by Emma Daniels and Mother Sally Jones, who recorded under the name the Two Gospel Keys. The Two Gospel Keys recorded the song twice in 1946: the first as “You’ve Got To Move” for Asch Records; the second as “You’ve Got To Move (When The Lord Gets Ready)” for Solo Records [Country Gospel: The Post War Years (1946-1953), DOCD 5221]. Mississippi Fred McDowell, who took credit for the song, recorded his version on July 5, 1965.
In the mid-’80s, an album was recorded under the guidance of Bill Wyman. Released in 1985, Willie And The Poor Boys [Blind Pig BPCD 5009], features, among others, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, Free/Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers, Small Faces/Who drummer Kenney Jones, guitarist Andy Fairweather Low, and singer-songwriter Chris Rea, who had a #12 pop hit in July 1978 with “Fool (If You Think It’s Over)”. Wyman plays on eleven of the album’s 12 tracks, while Charlie Watts plays on five.
Highlights include songs originally recorded by bluesman Big Joe Williams (“Baby Please Don’t Go”), Otis Redding (“These Arms Of Mine,” sung here by Paul Rodgers, whose voice flows like honey), Little Richard (“Slippin’ And Slidin'”), Chuck Berry (“You Never Can Tell”), ’40s R&B shouter Roy Brown (“Saturday Night”) and the previously-mentioned Amos Milburn (“Chicken Shack Boogie”).
In 1995, ten years after the release of Willie And The Poor Boys and two years after Wyman quit the band, the Rolling Stones released Stripped, a live album recorded at various venues featuring Darryl Jones on bass. It contains a small handful of Stones classics, remakes of “Love In Vain” and Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” as well as performances of Bob Dylan’s 1965 masterpiece “Like A Rolling Stone” and Willie Dixon’s “Little Baby,” first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in May 1961.
“Little Baby” was released on the LP simply titled Howlin’ Wolf, aka The Rocking Chair Album, in January 1962. It is Wolf’s second long player. His first, Moanin’ In The Moonlight, contains twelve tracks Wolf recorded between 1951, when he was recording for the Memphis Recording Service (to become Sun Records the following year) and 1959, the year of the album’s release. Both albums were issued on one CD by MCA, who own the Chess masters. Moanin’ In The Moonlight is one of my desert island discs – a definete “must-own”.
To date, the Rolling Stones have been an active band for 45 years. Their latest album, A Bigger Bang, was released in 2005. Bill Wyman, who turned 70 in October 2006, has also remained active. Today, he tours and records with his band the Rhythm Kings, and has put together a 2-CD compilation of some of his favorite blues material from the 1920s through to the early ’50s. The CD, Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey [DOCD 32-20-02], is distributed by and available through Document Records.