Blue & Lonesome

Why The Rolling Stones are NOT (not) a blues band

With ‘Blue & Lonesome’, The Rolling Stones ‘have come full circle’. Really? I don’t think so and I’m speaking as a fan. The full circle theory is what the media want us to believe because it sounds so simpatico.

It all looks logical: a) ‘Blue & Lonesome’ is a blues album b) The Rolling Stones started out as a blues band c) conclusion: they have come full circle. Problem is, The Rolling Stones did NOT (not) start out as a blues band. They never were one. And it’s easy to prove, actually.

One true blues Stone
Let’s have a look at the band members.
Charlie Watts is a jazz person. Bill Wyman had played rock’n’roll and pop before joining and that’s exactly what he would do again as a solo artist (‘Si Si Je Suis un Rock Star’) and as leader of Willie & The Poor Boys. Later, he would venture into the jazzy and rockin’ side of R&B with his Rhythm Kings. Keith Richards prefers the Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley school of rock’n’roll: it’s all about riffs. Besides, Richards is a great fan of the white American tradition, think The Everly Bros. Thanks to his harmonica and phrasing, Jagger comes closest to fifties R&B in general (think Rufus Thomas), the Chicago style (Muddy Waters) and even acoustic blues à la Slim Harpo and Robert Johnson. That leaves us with exactly one Stone who had a blues band in mind: Brian Jones who played a mean slide and for a while referred to himself as ‘Elmo’ - after Elmore James.
When presenting the album in his blues show on Radio Classic 21, DJ Walter de Paduwa asked himself ‘But where’s Keith Richards?’. Well, Keith Richards not being a blues guitarist...

Blues or R&B?
At the time, The Rolling Stones were voted best ‘rhythm and blues’ band several times over and that is closer to the truth. Can one really distinguish between Rhythm and Blues and Blues? Most certainly, even if many versatile artists – like Berry or Little Richard– practised both genres and happily mixed them. Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley are rhythm and blues announcing rock and roll. Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi McDowell, Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Johnson are blues. With covers of Chicago blues icons like Otis Rush and Little Walter, ‘Blue & Lonesome’ surely is a blues album. Their first. I’m not saying it, Keith Richards said it himself to The Sun: ‘Finally, after 50-odd years, we’ve made a blues album’.
In other words: there’s no circle. But that’s fine as it gives us the occasion to highlight their other influences: soul and country.
Now let’s have a look at The Rolling Stones’ discography.

Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys
This pre-Stones outfit with Jagger, Richards and Dick Taylor – left a home-made recording consisting of a dozen or so songs, mainly Chuck Berry covers like  ‘Around And Around’, ‘Beautiful Delilah’ or ‘Little Queenie’. They also played ‘La Bamba’ (so did The Beatles) and the rockabilly ‘You’re Right, I’m Left, She’s Gone’ recorded by Elvis in 1955. That leaves us with Don Robey’s ‘I Don’t Want No Woman’ (originally on Bobby Blue Bland’s  album ‘Two Steps From The Blues’, 1961, but recorded in 1957) and two tunes by a blues man who would be an influence to the point of emulation: ‘Ain’t Got You’ and ‘On Your Way To School’ by Jimmy Reed.

Two early studio recordings
Two early and never officially released studio recordings (late 1962, early 1963) show the same pattern: lots of up-tempo rhythm and blues, this time courtesy of Bo Diddey (‘Diddley Daddy’, ‘Road Runner’, ‘You Can’t Judge A Book’), more Jimmy Reed (‘Bright Lights Big City’,) and another heavy influence in the making: Muddy Waters ( ‘I Want To Be Loved’ via Willie Dixon and ‘Soon Forgotten’). The same goes for the set-lists of their earlier shows: a predominance of Reed, Berry, Diddley, plus some Elmore James (Brian Jones’ hero) and plain white rock’n’roll from the pen of Leiber & Stoller (‘Kansas City’, ‘I’m A Hog For You’).  

The first 45s
The very first single (June 1963) was ‘Come On’  - yet another Chuck Berry cover – and the second ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ by Lennon and MCartney, not exactly known to the world as die-hard Chicago blues fans. It’s fast and furious rock’n’roll, The Beatles’ specialty at the time. Blues and R&B is relegated to the flip-side, with ‘I Want To Be Loved’ and the band’s Jimmy Reed sound-alike ‘Stoned’.

The follow-up (Sept. 1963) was to be ‘Poison Ivy’ – another Leiber & Stoller tune and a far cry from blues or R&B altogether – coupled with Allen Toussaint’s ‘Fortune Teller’, great New Orleans R&B and closer to the mark. Decca withdrew the single and in Jan. 1964 released an EP instead featuring the aforementioned ‘Poison Ivy’, more rock and roll (Chuck Berry’s ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ and the oft-covered ‘Money’) and a most interesting track that proves my point: ‘You Better Move On’ by Arthur Alexander, who equally influenced The Beatles (‘Anna’). Arthur Alexander is a very fine writer and performer of country songs and sugary soul ballads, but you can’t call this blues or R&B. The Stones would come back to Alexander’s catalogue and to soul music real soon...
Meanwhile, their next single (Feb. 1964) is a splendid version of Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away’, which itself is an interpretation of the Bo Diddley beat. On the B-side we find ‘Little by Little’, another copy of the Jimmy Reed-style (written by the band and Phil Spector).

Their first LP
Simply called ‘The Rolling Stones’, their first LP (April 1964) features many of the tunes listed above and confirms the band’s liking for tough R&B from the likes of Willie Dixon (a really fast ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’), Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.
Now, this is where it becomes interesting. Gone forever is Elmore James, Brian Jones’ hero. Gone is Bobby Blue Bland. Out go pale imitations of songs that were on everyone’s repertoire (‘Kansas City’) and those that never matched the Stones’ musical goals in the first place (‘La Bamba’).
In comes soul: be it the funky ‘Walking The Dog’ (Rufus Thomas) or the straight Motown of ‘Can I Get A Witness’ written by Dozier & Holland for Marvin Gaye in 1963. The band are so smitten by that sound, they ‘compose’ a kind of instrumental extension called... ‘Now I’ve Got A Witness’. That first LP doesn’t only include Alexander’s tearjerker ‘You Better Move On’, but also one by Ted Jarrett - ‘You Can Make It If You Try’ (1958) written for Gene Allison, an exemplary piece of country&soul.

How about the blues then? It’s there alright, as they deliver brilliant interpretations of the slow, subdued and sexually-laden ‘King Bee” (Slim Harpo) and ‘Little Red Rooster’ (Dixon). Much to everyone’s surprise, the pure blues of ‘Little Red Rooster’ with Brian Jones’ wonderful slide would grace the no. 1 spot of the singles chart – a  unique feat.

Soul Men
More soul was to follow with Womack & Womack’s ‘It’s All Over Now’, ‘Time Is On My Side’, and ‘If You Need Me’ (co-written by Wilson Pickett). Why, they even turn the piano blues of ‘Confessin’ The Blues’ into a soul ballad rather than cranking it up like Chuck Berry did on his ‘Rockin’ At the Hops’ (1960) – said to be one of the LPs Jagger carried when meeting Richards again...
And it doesn’t stop here.  On the partly overlapping  1964-1965 albums ‘No.2’ (UK), ‘Now’ and ‘12x5’ (both US), the Rolling Stones return to soul balladry with ‘Pain in My Heart’ (co-written by Otis Redding, but based on Toussaint’s ‘Ruler Of My Heart’), cover the crossover soul of The Drifters (‘Under the Boardwalk’) and introduce us to the mighty Solomon Burke with a funky rendition of ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’.
This isn’t to say that the Stones had become a soul band. Of course, their initial love for anything rock’n’roll is kept intact with more Chuck Berry (‘You Can’t Catch Me’), more Leiber & Stoller (‘ Down Home Girl’) and anything they happen to fancy, like ‘Suzie Q’. Worth mentioning is the rather faithful rendition of  Barbara Lynn Ozen’s uptempo soul-rock-R&B mix ‘(Oh Baby) We Got A Good Thing Goin’.
How about the blues then? It’s there alright and ‘No.2 ‘ pays tribute to Muddy again with ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’.   

The Stones – or rather Jagger and Richards – had started to write their own songs around that time. Apart from third-rate stuff that should never have seen the light of day, the duo tried lightweight pop for others, like their mate Gene Pitney (‘That Girl Belongs to Yesterday’, Jan. 1965), Marianne Faithfull (‘As Tears Go By’, June 1964) and anyone else who thought success was guaranteed, The Mighty Avengers (‘So Much In Love’, end of 1964).
What they kept for themselves wasn’t exactly bluesy blues, but either swinging R&B fit as B-sides or album fillers (think ‘Off The Hook’, ‘What A Shame’ and ‘Grown Up Wrong’) or ballads such as ‘The Singer Not The Song’,  and ‘Play With Fire’.

At any rate,  a fair share of soul and R&B covers would be on both the US and UK versions of ‘Out Of Our Heads’ (July and  December 1965 respectively). The band revisited Motown (Marvin Gaye and ‘Hitch-Hike’), borrowed the finger-snapping soul song ‘Mercy’ from Don Covay, and deep soul balled ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’ by Roosevelt Jamison –via Otis Redding’s rather than O.V. Wright’s cover. And there’s a straightforward cover of a Sam Cooke’s ‘Good Times’. I’d even place Bert Berns’ ‘Cry To Me’ in the soul section, since the Stones were again inspired by Solomon Burke. As for R&B, we have to turn to Mssrs Jagger and Richards for their repetitive ‘I’m Alright’ and more B-sides that owe a lot to the Masters,  e.g. ‘The Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man’ and ‘The Spider And The Fly’.
If you’re still looking for a blues, it will have to be the self-penned acoustic ‘Good Times, Bad Times’ (‘12x5’, US, 1964) or Muddy’s ‘Look What You’ve Done’ (‘December’s Children’, US, 1965).

Country Men
Meanwhile, something else was happening, an influence that has been neglected and often overlooked: country. Even though it’s a perfect fit for their raunchy and steamy shows, Hank Snow’s ‘I’m Movin’ On’ is genuine country (‘Got Live If you Want It’ EP, Jan. 1965). The band recorded Jagger and Richard’s ‘Heart Of Stone’ in the Summer of 1964 and you needn’t wait for the guitar solo to taste its country flavour! But fans did have to wait for the somewhat unfortunate ‘Metamorphosis’ album (1975) for this version, since the official single (US) or EP release (Europe) features a more straight version.  

The entirely self-written album ‘Aftermath’ (1966) underlined that new-found inspiration with ‘High And Dry’. It would take a while before they returned to the white American tradition. Keith Richards met Byrd Graham Parsons in London in May 1968 and the latter’s C&W influence would be obvious on songs like ‘Dear Doctor’ (‘Beggar’s Banquet’, late 1968), ‘Country Honk’ (‘Let It Bleed, 1969), ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘Dead Flowers’ (1971’s ‘Sticky Fingers’). 
By that time however, The Glimmer Twins had invented their own brand of rock (‘Midnight Rambler’, ‘Monkey Man’, etc.), soul music was out, the R&B boom was over and blues vigilante Brian Jones was dead.

‘Blues & Lonesome’ cannot possibly mean that the Rolling Stones have come full circle as a blues band, since they weren’t one to start with. The Stones were always a lot about rock, quite a bit about R&B and a little about blues-blues. But that’s fine, as it makes ‘Blue and Lonesome’ their very first real blues album, electric Chicago style like the purists think it should be!
Brian Jones would have loved it. 

© Eddy Bonte
First published on this site   26 Feb. 2017