In 1994, my colleague Andy McKaie, who's done such a masterful job reissuing the Chess catalog on MCA (and now Universal), asked me to write the liner notes for a collection of Chess tunes later recorded by the Rolling Stones. The record is out of print, but here are my notes for Stone Rock Blues: The Original Recordings of Songs Covered by the Rolling Stones (MCA CHD-9347, 1994, part of the Original Chess Masters series).
When the Rolling Stones first came to the United States in 1964, there was one site they insisted on visiting: the Chess Studios in Chicago. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts stopped in at 2120 South Michigan Avenue ostensibly to record a new EP for the UK market (Five by Five, which appeared that August), but what they were really doing was embarking on a pilgrimage.
Perhaps more than anything else, the key to what made the Rolling Stones the most influential of all rock'n'roll bands can be found in their bold, idiosyncratic reinterpretations of the American blues, rhythm and blues, and first-generation rock'n'roll songs they loved so much. Like the Beatles before them and thousands of fellow British groups after them (from the Animals and the Yardbirds to the Clash and the Mekons), the Rolling Stones thrived by taking inspiration from the greatest of their American forebears and then expanding their source material into something immediately recognizable as being by no one by themselves. But what they did better than any other rock'n'roll band, past or present, was integrate those influences into their own songwriting style, using their cover versions as a springboard for their own expansions of blues, R&B, and rock'n'roll. As Chess master Bo Diddley shouted, you can't judge a book by its cover. But you may be able to judge a rock'n'roll band by its covers, as we hear on Stone Rock Blues. After all, would you rather hear original songs based on "I Just Wanna Make Love to You"...or "Please Mr. Postman"?
The Rolling Stones idolized the pick of the Chess players throughout the band's career, whether back in 1965, sitting at Howlin' Wolf's feet as he smashed through the politeness of the teenage crowd on Shindig, or 16 years later, as the Checker-board Lounge in Chicago, deferring to a dignified Muddy Waters as he tossed aside issues of age and health, delivered unequalled pure, hard blues. You can see this love of the music they're introducing to white American audiences in films of the Rolling Stones' earliest U.S. appearances, especially their performance on the TAMI Show. Frontmen Mick and Keith frequently smile at each other, but the grins are deeper than the usual isn't-it-great-we're-going-to-get-laid-after-the-show smirks than rock stars usually exchange. That's part of it, of course, but on a higher level what they're sharing is an elation that they are getting away with what they're doing. They're making a great living playing the music they love in the country that gave birth to that music to a crowd of teenagers who'd never know Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters otherwise. The smiles say: We're doing something worthwhile; this is living.
As much as they adored Muddy and the Wolf, the Rolling Stones' favorite Chess source was Chuck Berry, represented here by seven of the dozen-plus of his compositions that Mick and the boys borrowed. "Come On," "Bye Bye Johnny," "Carol," "Around and Around," "You Can't Catch Me," "I'm Talkin' About You," and "Little Queenie" showcase the breadth of Berry's achievements as the greatest of all rock'n'roll lyricists. Berry's unprecedented synthesis--blues (especially the jump-band variety), country, and swing, all funneled through his wry, nonlinear mind--extended ideas about what the new form could encompass. Berry took over rock'n'roll shortly after its birth in Memphis, and anyone who subsequently picked up a guitar with a desire to write a rock'n'roll song that described real life eventually finds out that Berry invented many of the tools. Into the '90s, he is still the single greatest influence in the ragged guitar lines of Richards and compadre Ron Wood.
Muddy Waters, the man who created Chicago-style electric blues as we know it, contributes five songs to Stone Rock Blues: "I Just Wanna Make Love To You," "I Can't Be Satisfied," "Look What You've Done," "Mannish Boy," and "Rolling Stone," the last of which the Rolling Stones never recorded but is included here for the obvious reason. Aside from giving them a name, Muddy's importance to the Rolling Stones cannot be overestimated: In the 25x5 film documentary, Keith reveals that the only reason he bothered to speak to a teenage Mick the day they started the band was that Mick has a hard-to-find import copy of The Best of Muddy Waters tucked under his arm. In Muddy's music, budding songwriters Mick and Keith discovered a model whose work exemplified the freedom they were searching for and the power they hoped that freedom would give them.
While the Rolling Stones were no less drawn to Howlin' Wolf, they recorded his songs far lass than those of Chuck or Muddy; only one of his numbers, "Little Red Rooster," topped the British singles charts for the Stones, although single release in the U.S. was undermined by lyrics some radio programmers deemed objectionable.
Of course, the sources of the Rolling Stones are not limited to the blues. They assayed a hard-edged version of Dale Hawkins's 1957 swamp-drenched hit "Susie Q" that emphasized how far afield they could travel. And Bo Diddley, another strident performer with one foot in rock'n'roll and the other in the blues, provided the Rolling Stones with his trademark beat. The two Diddley compositions here, the unrequited "Mona" and the self-explanatory "Crackin' Up," sketch the wide perimeter of his concerns, equally adroit at fevered tales of longing and flat-out jokes. Diddley was also a profound influence on contemporary Buddy Holly, whose fierce-yet-friendly offering here, "Not Fade Away," remains perhaps the deepest-ever incorporation of the Bo Diddley Beat by another performer.
Less well-known than any of these performers but just as important a Rolling Stones influence was Alabama soul singer Arthur Alexander. Before a brief 1993 comeback cut short by his unexpected death, Alexander's reputation was primarily as a writer. Of his four charting hits, all are better known in others's versions. The Beatles covered "Anna (Go To Him)" and "Where have You Been (All My Life)"; Jerry Lee Lewis danced through "Every Day I Have To Cry"; and the Rolling Stones dove into southern-ballad soul with "You Better Move On." It's no surprise that the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Jerry Lee Lewis have better musical taste than the rest of us, and it's worth going back to the source. Alexander's voice was less threatening than traditional blues voices, but it did betray an openness and humility that Mick Jagger brought into his vocal style, if not his life.
Part of what made the Rolling Stones at their peak so great is that they listened to not only the diverse folks on this CD, but also everyone from Buck Owens to Peter Tosh, the Temptations to Jim Carroll. On Stone Rock Blues we hear crucial building blocks without which most of the achievements of rock'n'roll's greatest bands might be unimaginable. And it's still going on. When some teenager in a garage today cranks out a circa-1965 Keith Richards guitar riff, chances are he or she is paying tribute to someone on this disc.
(Thanks to my friend Andy McLenon for helping me think about the Stones.)