One of the greatest rock bands of all time, not to mention America’s most famous music magazine, as many know, both took their names from a song written and recorded in 1950 by blues icon Muddy Waters.
The song of course was ‘Rollin’ Stone’. The band was the Rolling Stones and the magazine, Rolling Stone. On that note, I’d like to introduce a great video of the Stones sitting in with Muddy in 1981 on a version of the Big Joe Williams classic, ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’. I believe this was the last time Muddy was filmed playing live.
Some music sources say Bob Dylan, too, took his ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ classic from Muddy’s song. But Bob, I believe, borrowed the theme from ‘Lost Highway’, a song written and recorded in 1948 by the blind Texan country singer, Leon Payne. Containing the line, “I’m a rolling stone, I’m alone and lost’, this was made famous a year later by Alabama-born blues, country and general roots music legend, Hank Williams.
But let’s get back to Muddy. Naturally the Rolling Stones were huge fans. That’s why they picked a Muddy song for their name and included the Muddy Waters classic, “I Just Want To Make Love To You” (albeit written by Willie Dixon), on their first album in 1964. But the English band were also instrumental in promoting Muddy Waters’ music to white audiences in America. I’ve just re-read 2002’s ‘Can’t Be Satisfied, the life and times of Muddy Waters’ by the Grammy-award-winning author and film maker, Robert Gordon. In the book’s ‘Notes’ section at the back, Gordon quotes a backstage interview given by Muddy in 1978 to the short-lived UK music magazine, Dark Star. Asked about the Rolling Stones, Muddy said:
“They helped turn the white people around in America, recording our records and putting our names on them. When I first came out on records, white people didn’t want their kids to buy my records. (They ) called it ‘nigger music’.”
When the interviewer interjected, “Race music?” Muddy answered:
“They wouldn’t say ‘race’, (they’d) say, ‘nigger’.”
I well remember the disdain shown to the Stones on American television back then. These comments in the video below by Dean Martin, and his audience’s laughter, back in 1964 will show you what the band had to put up with. If that’s how they treated white blues bands, just imagine what Dean’s generation thought of black blues artists.
Stones guitarist, Keith Richards, who wrote the forward to ‘Can’t Be Satisfied’, told Gordon, “When we started the Rolling Stones, we were just little kids, right? We felt we had some of the licks down, but our aim was to turn other people on to Muddy Waters. When I got to hear Muddy Waters, it all fell into place for me. He made it (blues) explainable. he was like a codebook.”
I’d always believed Keith’s story of how he found Muddy Waters painting the studio when they stopped at Chess to record in the same place as their heroes, in 1964. Marshall Chess disputed that, though, saying in the book, “That’s some kind of Keith’s fantasy and I tease him about that. If you knew Muddy Waters, he was always dressed sharp as a tack. He wasn’t about to get paint on his Stetson shoes or his custom-made suit.”
Several other Chess employees disputed Keith’s version, too. One said, “Leonard (Chess) would be the first one to say ‘Get your ass down, I don’t want you falling of those damn ladders.” Meeting the longhairs meant little to Muddy at the time, writes Gordon, though as their popularity grows, so did his respect and appreciation for them. The Stones’ first number one in the USA was “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, a title directly inspired by Muddy’s ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’. Said Muddy:
“The Rolling Stones created a whole wide-open space for the music. They said who did it first and how they came by knowing it. It tip my hat to them. It took people from England to hip my people – my white people – that a black man’s music is not a crime to bring in the house.”
It amused me to read that when Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood went backstage at Chicago’s Quiet Knight club in 1978, Keith kneeled down and kissed Muddy’s hand. Said songwriter and Muddy’s friend, Terry Abramson, “Muddy knew Mick and Keith very well, but hanging out after the show, he kept addressing Charlie Watts as ‘Eddie’. Charlie didn’t correct him, and seemed really tickled to be around someone who didn’t kiss his ass.”
Soon afterwards, President Jimmy Carter invited Muddy to play at the White House. “Muddy Waters is one of the great performers of all time,” said the President. “He’s won more awards than I could name. His music is well known around the world, comes from a good part of the country, and represents accurately the background and history of the American people.”
Then it was on to a European tour, organised, said Muddy, “by some rock guy”. The rock guy turned out to be Eric Clapton. Said Muddy’s band member, Bob Margolin,
“Two things Eric played really nailed Muddy: he did a very soulful version of Big Maceo’s Chicago blues classic, ‘Worried Life Blues’, which the late Otis Spann used to play when he was with Muddy. And Eric did a killer open-G slide guitar ‘Come See Me Early in the Morning’, in which he used a trademark Muddy Waters turnaround lick. Muddy got a big smile as said, ‘That’s my shit!’. From then on, they were close and Muddy used to call Eric ‘my son’, his highest compliment to a younger musician.”
I could rattle on for ages with snippets from Robert Gordon’s enjoyable book but it would, of course, be way better if you got yourself a copy. One last thing that amused though was this, when Johnny Winter, thrilled to be performing alongside Muddy, picked up his hero’s guitar in 1977.
“You couldn’t play Muddy’s guitar to save your life,” said Johnny.
“It was impossible. He had his strings so high off the neck, and he used such heavy-gauged strings, too, you just couldn’t play it. Muddy said to me, ‘When you pick up someone else’s guitar, it’s like someone else’s woman that doesn’t want you. The guitar is saying, leave me alone, I don’t want you.’ ”