Sunday, September 6, 2015

Hail Hail Rock and Roll

Muddy Waters with Little Walter, Bo Diddley and Phil Chess

Keith Richards recently sparked controversy by calling Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band rubbish, nothing more than a mishmash of tunes which he says the Rolling Stones did the same on Satanic Majesties.  Probably more controversial is his statement that the Stones saved Blues music, noting their appreciation of Chicago Blues.

Not only did they take their band name from a Muddy Waters song, but they made the pilgrimage to Chicago in 1965 and cutting a record with the legendary Chess Records, for whom Muddy Waters recorded.  This scene was highlighted in the movie Cadillac Records, but here's more on that legendary meeting in this 2010 Guardian article by Elijah Wald.

For most young British musicians, Chess records was the Rosetta stone of Rock and Roll.  Not only did the Chess brothers record legendary Blues musicians like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, but the undisputed King of Rock and Roll Chuck Berry.  They also had the incomparable Bo Diddley and Etta James on their label.  What drew Keith to Mick was seeing some Chess records under his arm, and the rest as they say is history.

The Chess Brothers eventually sold their label, as Blues did seem to be dying a slow death in America.  It couldn't keep up with the new sound that dominated the air waves.  Motown was drawing all the great young Rhythm and Blues talent, putting out a sound that would define American music in the late 60s and early 70s.  For cats like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf it seemed the gig was over, until they were invited to London in the early 70s.  These were dubbed super sessions as they featured Steve Winwood, Rory Gallagher, Eric Clapton, Bill Wyman among others backing them.

It wasn't a new concept.  The Fillmore concerts which featured the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Allman Brothers, often had Blues musicians like Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker joining in.  Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker both played with Canned Heat and other groups of the era.  Chuck Berry was backed by the Steve Miller Band at one Fillmore concert in 1967.  So, it wasn't like the Rolling Stones single handed saved Blues music.  They were joined by many other musicians who fully appreciated the music and greatly respected the musicians.  But, it is that 1965 recording date that stands out for a variety of reasons, primarily because it was the first public show of support for what appeared to be a dying music.

Chuck Berry was notably upset when Brian Wilson set the lyrics of Surfin' USA to the music of Sweet Little Sixteen and made a big hit out of it.  To make matters worse, Berry would spend the next two years in jail on what appeared to be trumped up charges of transporting a minor across state lines.  He was at the peak of his career.  Eventually, Berry won a settlement with the Beach Boys, who went onto create their own distinctive Pet Sounds, considered one of the great rock and roll albums.

Other Blues musicians found their music pilfered as well, receiving nothing in the way of royalties.  Led Zeppelin was eventually forced to credit Willie Dixon for Whole Lotta Love, as Dixon claimed Plant had taken the lyrics from his You Need Love,   Dixon wrote a great number of songs for Chess, including Hoochie Coochie Man, which was made famous by Muddy Waters.

But, Chess wasn't the only music label featuring black music in the 50's.  Vee-Jay Records was right across the street, recording John Lee Hooker and Elmore James among many others.  It wasn't like the Leonard Chess was a groundbreaker, as depicted in the movie.  In fact, it was Evelyn Arons who first signed Muddy Waters at Aristocrat Records, which the Chess Brothers bought in the late 50s and renamed.

The real credit, however, belongs to Alan Lomax, who traversed the country in the 1940s recording Blues and Folk music for the Library of Congress, including McKinley Morganfield, later known as Muddy Waters.  Lomax's discography is immense, including the immortal Lead Belly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, among many others.   This was the second generation of Blues musicians.

There were also Texas labels like Peacock Records, founded in 1949, which recorded Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Big Mama Thornton and Little Richard that are largely forgotten now.  FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, had its heyday in the 1960s recording R&B legends Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett.

Aretha Franklin at Fame Studios

It's a great legacy that is getting its due again in boxed sets.  There were so many labels spread throughout the country that either went bankrupt or were bought by larger labels.  Some of the musicians continued to thrive.  Others were forgotten until renewed interest in these musicians grew in the past two decades to find their songs recast as Hip-Hop melodies and remixed as House music.  The more obscure the better, as it was harder to track, but thanks to Youtube you can usually find the original melody.

Keith Richards deserves a lot of credit, as he has always shown his respect to the original Blues and Rock and Roll musicians.  In 1987 he recreated a super session for Chuck Berry for the movie, Hail Hail Rock N' Roll.


  1. IIRC VJ records published the early Beatles records. This likely because several of their songs were originally American R & R songs from the 50s.

    I do recall that when a number of white American Rock stars were asked who their biggest inspirations were, invariably they said Bill Haley, Elvis, Buddy Holley, and Carl Perkins. But when the Beatles and Stones were asked this question they said it was the likes of Chuck Berry, Larry Williams, and Muddy Waters.

    It took a long time for American musicians to admit that Rock & Roll is a black man's invention. Thankfully, the British musicians had no trouble making that admission.

  2. This was a little different. The Beatles didn't actually record their album at Vee-Jay Records. It was recorded by London Studios two years earlier and pressed by Vee-Jay for American release. It was the opposite situation with the Rolling Stones, who actually recorded I Can't Get No Satisfaction with Chess and later had it pressed for British release by London Studios.

  3. Here's the full discography of singles the Stones recorded with Chess,

  4. For the record, (pun intended), that's Phil Chess on the left of the pic with Muddy, Walter & Bo. It was shot at the famous Ter-Mar Recording Studios, 320 East 21st St, Chicago, IL, January 1967.