Apr 042020

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

On the morning of  October 17, 1961, a skinny, scruffy-haired teen was standing on platform 2 of Dartford station, waiting for a train into London. He was holding a guitar case. Slightly further down the platform stood another, less scruffy teen. He clasped two vinyl records under his arms, held at just the right angle that the titles were visible. The scruffy-haired teen tilted his head to get a better look, his eyes widening as he read the large print emblazoned across the record covers. Chuck Berry Rockin’ At the Hops and – could it be? Yes! – The Best of Muddy Waters. Trying to act naturally, the scruffy teen took a step closer to to the young man with the records. Then another step. And another. Before long they were right next to each other. The scruffy teen cleared his throat. “Hello,” he said. “My name’s Keith.”

So there you have it: Muddy Waters was partially responsible for the first meeting of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger since primary school. It would not be his last contribution to their history. A few months later, Brian Jones was on the phone attempting to secure a booking for the newly formed group. The promoter asked for the band’s name. They didn’t have one. Jones’ eyes darted around the room and fell upon that  same fateful album, The Best of Muddy Waters – specifically, side one track 5: “Rollin’ Stone.” The Rolling Stones were now christened.

The Stones now owed Muddy a debt on two counts, without even including his influence on their music. They began paying him back immediately. The Stones’ self-titled debut album contained a turbo-charged cover of “I Just Want To Make Love To You” that swapped the deliberate pace of the original for an intensity bordering on manic. The track is a showcase for Keith’s chugging rhythm guitar and Brian’s wailing harmonica.

The second album, The Rolling Stones No. 2, featured another Muddy Waters cover in the form of “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” which Muddy had originally recorded in 1948. Brian Jones shines once again, paying a worthy tribute to Muddy’s often overlooked skill as a slide guitarist.

The Stones recorded some of this album, as well as the EP Five By Five, at Chicago’s Chess Studios during their first American Tour, in June 1964. Chess being the home of Muddy Waters himself, the band was understandably excited by the prospect of meeting their hero and recording in the room where he had cut many of his hits. Keith Richards has alleged that the Stones were surprised to encounter Muddy standing atop a ladder painting the ceiling of the studio, although his story has been strenuously refuted by both Buddy Guy and Marshall Chess, who both assert that the regal Muddy would never have been found in such a position.

As the Stones swiftly evolved from a rhythm & blues cover band into a self-contained rock ‘n’ roll outfit, opportunities to pay tribute to their heroes became increasingly rare. The next Stones album to feature a Muddy Waters cover would be the 1977 double live album Love You Live, which featured a side devoted to a selection of R&B covers recorded at the El Mocambo Club in Toronto, Canada. One of these tracks was the Muddy Waters classic, “Mannish Boy.”

To date, the Stones have not covered Muddy Waters on record again. But their association was far from over. In November 1981, Mick, Keith, Ron Wood and pianist Ian Stewart called into Buddy Guy’s Checkerboard Lounge to see Muddy play, and inevitably ended up joining him onstage. This marked the first and last time the band would collaborate with Muddy in person.

Nevertheless, despite Muddy Waters passing away 37 years ago, the Stones have helped keep his spirit alive. They still occasionally include his songs in their live shows, with one particularly electrifying example being their performance of “Champagne & Reefer” alongside Buddy Guy in the concert film Shine A Light.

In 2016, The Stones returned to their blues roots with Blue & Lonesome, an album of classic Chicago blues songs. Muddy had not originally recorded any of the tracks, but – as is the case with everything The Stones record – his spirit is present on every track. As long as The Stones are still Rolling, Muddy Waters is alive.


Read about another blues legend in our In Memoriam feature on Willie Dixon.

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  One Response to “In Memoriam: Muddy Waters”

Comments (1)
  1. Just in case someone stumbles across this article: I mistakenly said that Muddy and the Stones’ 1981 performance at the Checkerboard Lounge was the only time they played together – in fact, the Stones had previously joined Muddy onstage in July 1978 at Chicago’s Quiet Knight Club.

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