Jagger sings the blues

The Stones have always been a blues band at heart, so it was natural for Mick Jagger to record with a blues legend. He talks about working with the late Jimmy Roger - and the current tour.

I wasn't that aware of Jimmy Rogers until I went to see him in a club many years ago," admits Mick Jagger. I'm asking him about his contribution to Blues Blues Blues, the album Rogers, born in Ruleville, Mississippi in 1934, nearly completed before his death in December 1997. "I never saw him play with Muddy Waters or anything," says Jagger, "but I connected [that] he was one of the guys who backed Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. Jimmy was on a lot of Chess sessions and he made one album I had with that tune "Sloppy Drunk" on it. I used to do that one."

I suggest the legendary Rogers might have featured on the Muddy Waters album sleeve which attracted Mick's attention back in 1960, soon after he met Keith Richards on a Dartford-bound train. After all, the pair named their band after a Waters song...

Jagger laughs politely. "Anyway, I did a show four or five years ago in London for the launch of National Music Day. Jimmy Rogers was on the bill and, after that I saw him around in Chicago. I certainly don't recall meeting him when we recorded at Chess studios in the Sixties."

Jagger claims Rogers was the first musician to play electric blues, influencing everyone from Freddie King to the British blues boom of the 60s. He was also a prolific songwriter who penned "Sweet Home Chicago", "That's All Right" and "Ludella". When news came that John and Elaine Koenig and Atlantic Records' supremo Ahmet Ertegun were in Los Angeles putting together recordings to celebrate Jimmy Rogers' unique contribution to the blues, Jagger and Richards jumped at the chance to get involved. The Glimmer Twins joined an illustrious guest-list which eventually included Jeff Healey, Taj Mahal, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Stephen Stills and Eric Clapton (a Rogers devotee who recorded several Rogers compositions on his From The Cradle album). But forget Carlos Santana hijacking John Lee Hooker's "The Healer", forget U2 and BB King's duet on "When Love Comes to Town", forget Ron Wood jamming with Bo Diddley; Blues Blues Blues is the real deal.

"I just did whatever they wanted me to do really. I was there to sing," says Jagger about his involvement. "Jimmy was pretty game but he was really ill. We were doing the vocals in the booth and I didn't know he was pretty sick. No one said anything. You make allowances for people his age and he was pretty good considering how ill he was. It was fun trading the verses around. It was all done live. They maybe touched up a couple of his things afterwards but they didn't touch mine 'cause I went back and never returned.

"They were all done in one afternoon. The trickiest was the Sonny Boy Williamson one, "Don't Start Me to Talkin'". The timing is really odd, it's the only one I had to do again. The other ones ["Trouble No More", a Muddy Waters composition and Rogers' own "Goin' Away Baby"] I knew really well. But, in the end, I think that "Don't Start Me to Talkin'" is the most interesting track. It just sounds really good and that band is so quiet. I'm not exaggerating. I walked into that studio and I didn't know whether they were playing or not. I could hardly hear them. I thought, Keith likes to play really loud, how is he gonna manage? But it's a good reminder of how these guys used to record. They were very much in that school, they probably recorded those things that we know very well at that volume. That drummer is incredibly quiet, whatever his name is." (It's Ted Harvey, actually.)

I ask about the rest of the team. The great Johnnie Johnson, a veteran of dozens of Chuck Berry and Albert King sessions, is on piano, while The Fabulous Thunderbirds' Kim Wilson hogged the harmonica. Jagger says he didn't mind that. "Wilson is a LA session player. He's not bad. If you're playing harmonica, you have to play all the time. You can't expect to just pick it up and be as good as someone who plays every night. I'm OK now because we're doing "Midnight Rambler" in our set on tour but then, I was playing mostly guitar and keyboards."

In 1997, when the Blues Blues Blues sessions took place, the Stones were halfway through their own Bridges to Babylon album. "The two experiences were completely different," he remembers fondly, "like walking out of some electronic thing and into Chicago in the other room." Some electronic thing is right. The last Stones studio effort was notable for unexpected collaborations with Danny Saber, while the singles boasted unusual remixes by The Dust Brothers and hip DJ team Deep Dish.

Somehow, this backs up my theory that the Stones are at their best when they are closest to their blues roots or the furthest away from them in mad "Continental Drift" mode (to pick another recent example from the Steel Wheels album). Jagger concurs. "Yeah, I like that. To go in the most extreme direction possible is to me the most fun. I like to hear the Stones playing really live blues all the way to someone doing a crazy remix. I find that the most amusing. We're a band that can do all those things. Of course, we don't do them all equally well, but the fact that we can function and be convincing in all these genres is great.

"There was a funny piece I saw the other week in an American mag, trying to pick out our lesser-known songs and they were saying stuff like: `Which blues band plays an Elizabethan ballad?'" Not that Jagger is serenading Lady Jane on the current US tour, which sees the Stones playing arenas rather than stadiums and charging premium ticket prices. "We're doing `Route 66', `Moonlight Mile' from Sticky Fingers; stuff we've never done before."

In an infamous BBC radio interview, support act Sheryl Crow said that touring with the Stones was not like Cocksucker Blues anymore. Jagger guffaws at the mention of Robert Frank's shelved 1972 documentary, more sex and drugs than rock n'roll, which the band allegedly rejected because they'd "played up to the cameras". "Things have certainly changed a lot! Because we're playing slightly smaller places and it's indoors, it's much more direct. You can see everyone, the look on their faces, whether they like the songs or they don't really care or they don't know them. It's quite hard work because there are no gimmicks; whatever you do can be seen out there! You've got to be aware 360 degrees. I've had a cold lately and, every time I blow my nose, they can see me. You really feel you're on 100 per cent of the time."

The Stones tour will reach British shores this summer while No Security, the group's seventh live album, came out last year. But what about those BBC sessions, those Seventies out-takes? We finally got the Rock'n'Roll Circus on CD, but how likely is a Stones box-set before 2000? "Nothing's planned to come out at the moment, but I'm sure it will one day. Not next year, but maybe the year after," says Jagger. "We've got a lot of good stuff from all periods, but I'm not really sure I want to do all the librarian work. My approach to the history of the Rolling Stones is somewhat ambivalent. I like to do what I'm doing now and I'd love to hear some of the old stuff, but I don't want to be listening for hours and hours. You feel like you're living in the past too much. I would prefer someone else to do the spade work."

`Blues Blues Blues' by the Jimmy Rogers All Stars is out on Atlantic Records. The Rolling Stones are touring the US and play in the UK in June

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