On 17th October, 1961, an 18-year-old student at the London School of Economics stood on platform two at Dartford Railway Station, heading to college. Shortly after, an 17-year-old art student walked onto the same platform, heading for Sidcup Art School. They had known one another at primary school, but then the LSE student had gone to Dartford Grammar.
Many of us will have had meetings like that. You exchange a few polite words and then move on. Whatever you once had in common is long gone.
However, this wasn’t’t like that. The art student was carrying a guitar. And not any old guitar: instead, an electric (hollow-bodied Hoefner cutaway, if you want to know). That’s significant in itself: an electric guitar could only means a serious muso. The LSE student was carrying two LPs. Once again, that said the same thing, that this guy was serious about his music: in themselves, LPs were expensive.
What was really important was what those LPs were. Chuck Berry’s Rockin’ at the Hops and The Best of Muddy Waters. I wrote about Chuck Berry here, and suffice to say the young man with the guitar was nuts about Chuck Berry.
Muddy Waters was one of the great bluesmen. The blues started life as a southern form, played on the acoustic guitar, by the likes of the great Robert Johnson. Between the wars came what is often called the Great Migration, in which southern blacks rode the railroads north fleeing agricultural depression, endemic poverty and exploitation, violent racism and headed to where the jobs were.
McKinley Morganfield was born and raised in Mississippi. He got the nickname Muddy from his grandmother; he took the name Muddy Waters as a stage name. Having attracted some attention as a bluesman, in 1943 he took the train north. A quick look at the railroad maps would soon explain his destination: like all roads go to Rome, all railroads in the USA head to Chicago. There, Waters traded in his acoustic for an electric: he claimed so that he could be heard in the large and raucous Chicago clubs. Waters wasn’t the first to go electric, but he was one of the most important. Signed by Chicago’s Chess records, Waters became the signature sound of the Chicago Blues.
And the young student had that album, and the label said Chess records. This guy was hip, seriously hip, and seriously into his rhythm and blues. If the skiffle craze had seen the likes of Lennon and Mcartney dipping their toes in that music, this young man was, in the words of the song, wading deep in Muddy Waters.
The one with the records was Michael Philip Jagger; the other was Keith Richards. The fifth track on that Muddy Waters album was Rollin’ Stone.
Mick and Keith, and a friend of Mick’s called Dick Taylor, started hanging out, making and listening to music.
The London blues scene was very much an off-shoot of its jazz scene. The most important British blues band of the time was Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. Jagger, Richards and Taylor met him and some of the associated musicians at Ealing Jazz Club. Jagger would Sing for corner on occasion (see below). Among the musicians they met were a slide guitarist named Brian Jones and a pianist named Ian Stewart. A few weeks later, Jones put an advert in Jazz Weekly, looking to form a new band (with Stewart): Jagger, Richards and Taylor duly joined. In a phone call to a Jazz Weekly, Jones coined the name form the Muddy Waters’ song: The Rolling Stones were born.
Over the next year or so the Stones became an established feature of the London scene. They had also acquired what would be their settled line up: Jagger, Richards, Jones, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, who had also been in Blues Incorporated (Stewart would be consigned to a backroom role). The had also got themselves an ambitious manager, a former employee of the Beatles, Andrew Loog Oldham.
Oldham wanted to make them into stars. He got the a record deal with Decca, who had famously turned down The Beatles. Initially he tried to force them into Beatle-style suits. It didn’t work.
But then, he hit on the formula, the Stones were going to the bad boys, the boys you didn’t want your daughter to bring home.
When Lennon and McCartney gave the Stones one of their songs , I Wanna Be Your Man, for their second release, it virtually guaranteed them a hit. The writers may not have expected the outcome.
The Stones rode on Beatlemania’s coat tails. They were stars. They had recorded an LP, had another hit.
By June 1964, they were in America, and found themselves in Chicago. There they got to live their dream: recording at the very Chess Studios in which their heroes had recorded, and with same engineer, Ron Malo. Whilst they recorded, Muddy Waters dropped by.
Those sessions also saw their first truly great record. It’s All Over Now was a great soul come rhythm and blues number by The Valentinos (check it out). But the Stones version is like an entirely different song. It sets much of the template for their greatest work, with elements of blues, soul and country. And Malo transformed the band’s sound.
There was one more cover to come as a hit single, but Oldham had long been pressing the band to do a Beatles: come up with their own material. It was Jagger and Richards who began to write. It took them time to learn how.
It was a happy coincidence that by the time they had come up with their first two genuinely great songs, they were recording in Los Angeles. The engineer at RCA Hollywood, Dave Hassinger, gave The Last Time an abrasive hard edged sound that perfectly suited Richards’ first great riff. If, like their version of It’s All Over Now, this was a country-r’n’b hybrid, neither had sounded anything like this.
It set off a run of classic Stones singles, the most famous of which was (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.
The big bad Rolling Stones were very much made. And nice boys they were not.
Nor was it all riffs and rock and roll. By 1965, the Stones are anything but just and r’n’b, or even just rock and roll band. This was when Bob Dylan and The Beatles were transforming the pop song. The b-side of The Last Time was something very different.
The harpsichord was played by the great American arranger Jack Nitzsche. In 1966, the Stones released their first album of Jagger/Richard originals, recorded at RCA Hollywood. Nitzsche’s influence is there for all to hear.
The Beatles may been first with the sitar, but there wasn’t much peace and love when the Stones used it.
In fact, their initial mojo was about to desert them, and wouldn’t return until 1968. But return it would in spades. It was those years that would see them make their finest music.
Meantime, with all the outrageous sexism, the outrage and two years on the road, the boys from the Dartford Delta were doing just fine.
Another post talks about the importance of Art Schools, and art students like Keith Richards and Dick Taylor (who let the Stones to resume his studies, and then founded The Pretty Things), and much else, here.
Muddy Waters didn’t do so bad, either