Music: White men sing the blues

Muddy Waters gave them their name. They stole riffs from Chuck Berry. And as for Jagger's funky chicken dance... The Rolling Stones wouldn't be were they are today without black music.

In July 1972, at the end of another predictably chaotic, decadent but also highly profitable tour by the Rolling Stones, a sumptuous party was held on the roof of the St Regis Hotel in New York. The guests included Andy Warhol, Candy Darling and Zsa Zsa Gabor among many other socialites and aristocrats. An unctuous atmosphere pervaded as the chattering guests fawned over themselves and their hosts, the Rolling Stones. The dignified black blues musician, Muddy Waters, one of their prime influences, was also on the roof performing for those invited. Yet amid the delirium of sycophancy, he was ignored.

It was Waters himself who said of the Rolling Stones: "They stole my music but they gave me my name." Yet he did also provide them with their name when they adopted the title of his song, "Rollin' Stone".

The group's love of black American music is unquestionable and, although they had forged their distinct sound by the late Sixties, up to 1965 their musical repertoire was dominated by cover versions of blues, rock'n'roll and soul songs. Fortuitously for the Stones, the majority of their British audience were ignorant of the original recordings, some of which were composed, as their biographer, Stanley Booth, emphasised, by "old black men too poor to put glass in their windows".

In 1963, Mick Jagger had declared: "Can you imagine a British-composed R&B song? It just wouldn't make it." Yet by 1968, when he had written such songs and also understood the financial incentive of doing so, he announced: "What's the point in listening to us doing `I'm a King Bee' when you can hear Slim Harpo doing it?" Chuck Berry had witnessed the Rolling Stones recording cover versions at Chess Records' recording studio in Chicago in 1964. While one report suggests that Berry exhorted ecstatically, "Wow, you guys are really getting it on", another states that he commented sarcastically: "Swing on, gentlemen, you are sounding most well if I may say so." Twenty-two years later, Keith Richards inducted Berry into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame and conceded with good humour, "I lifted every lick he ever played."

By 1965 the black poet and critic Leroi Jones was asking: "What is the difference between Beatles, Stones etc, and Minstrelry? Minstrels never convinced anybody they were black, either." Yet, although black people were not seduced by the Stones' artificial persona, many white teenagers were. The group had embraced the rebellious stance of black blues musicians, prompting Stanley Booth to describe Keith Richards as "the world's only bluegum white man, as poisonous as a rattlesnake". Brian Jones also initially called himself "Elmo Lewis", an allusion to the blues guitarist Elmore James.

But the artistic disparity between the Rolling Stones and the black musicians who had influenced them was palpable, as a concert in Santa Monica in 1965 demonstrated when the Stones were on the same bill as many groups they worshiped.

They were the principle act and their performance followed James Brown's, but as the journalist Nelson George observed with barely suppressed glee: "Mick Jagger jiggled across the stage doing his lame funky chicken after James Brown's incredible camel-walking, proto-moon-walking, athletically daring performance." By the time he returned to Britain, Jagger had obviously been studying frantically, as Giorgio Gomelsky, one of the group's early promoters, diagnosed: "When Mick got off the plane back in London, he was doing the James Brown slide." With Ike and Tina Turner supporting the Stones in 1969, Jagger could also absorb the dynamic movements of Tina Turner and the Ikettes from the wings of the arenas. With devoted practice Jagger ultimately became a global sex symbol, although his charisma eluded Truman Capote who deduced that Jagger's performance was "about as sexy as a pissing toad".

In his autobiography, Ike Turner concludes that "Jagger can't sing. He's all right, but he ain't no singer." Because Jagger sings with a studied cynicism, a trait which is absent from black music, his voice is void of authentic emotion apart from in such rare cases as "Moonlight Mile" or "Shine a Light" and today he predominantly shouts and bellows. Propitiously for Jagger, he has been supported by a host of inspirational backing vocalists, including the awesome gospel singing of Merry Clayton on "Gimme Shelter", as well as such soul singers as Bobby Womack and Don Covay and the reggae singer Max Romeo. A notoriously chameleon-like figure, Jagger has resorted to cockney, public school and black American accents, and it is these black enunciations that are most glaring on his interpretations of "Prodigal Son" and "You Gotta Move". But in 1972, on their masterpiece Exile on Main Street, there is no hint of imitation as the Stones captured their desired idiosyncratic fusion of black musical styles alongside their country songs. Mystifyingly, only four years later the group had reverted to insipid emulation on their ghastly recording of the reggae song, "Cherry Oh Baby".

Despite this, it is indisputable that the Stones, among other British groups, did precipitate the huge resurrection of many black blues musicians in the mid-Sixties. Prior to this revival, Muddy Waters was allegedly reduced to painting Chess Records' recording studio in the year the Stones recorded there. The group also demanded that Howlin' Wolf join them on the television programme Shindig in 1965, subsequently exposing him to millions of Americans. BB King, Stevie Wonder, the Meters and Ike and Tina Turner, among other black musicians, all profited from supporting the Stones on tour although, today, Ike Turner is adamant that his group's performance embarrassingly transcended the Stones' act. More recently, Charlie Watts recorded an album of Charlie Parker's music and Keith Richards produced an album of Rastafarian drumming by the Wingless Angels. Both Jagger and Richards produced Peter Tosh's album Bush Doctor in the late Seventies and last year contributed to Jimmy Rogers' posthumously released album.

But some distasteful attitudes have muddied this ostensible altruism. In 1964, Jagger wrote a snide letter to Melody Maker asserting that "These legendary characters wouldn't mean a light commercially today if groups were not going round Britain doing their numbers." Along with their infamous logo of red lips and a tongue, the lyrics to some of their songs have also emphasised black stereotypes. One of their biographers, Philip Norman, surmised that the song "Brown Sugar" was "a paean of racist sexism", while in "Some Girls" Jagger declared "Black girls just want to get fucked all night". The Reverend Jesse Jackson condemned the song, though the Stones contended that it was a parody of female stereotypes.

Perhaps the geographical gap between Britain and the States induced a romanticised impression of black culture in some of the Stones. Indeed, in 1972 two of them indulged in a staggering example of cultural tourism. According to the journalist Robert Greenfield, in the early hours of the morning after a concert in Dallas, Jagger and Watts were "in search of soul food". Accompanied by the photographer Annie Liebowitz, their armed black bodyguard and Robert Greenfield, their chauffeur drove them in their long, spacious limousine into the poor black neighbourhood of the city. On finding a restaurant, they felt protected as they ate because, as Greenfield commented, "the Stones' bodyguard keeps a watch on the brothers shooting pool, gauging the distance to the door, wondering if the five rounds in the snubnose revolver he carries will be enough if he has to shoot it out to get to the door".

In an age dominated by the influence of black American music - but whose very musicians have rarely been justly compensated for their innovations - it is predictable that the Stones, a white group indebted to black music, are about to conclude one of their most profitable tours in the final year of this century. In 1984, during an interview with The New York Times, Jagger suggested that he wanted to perform, as many blues musicians did, until he died. Fifteen years later, the Stones continue to tour. The disparity, of course, is that while those blues musicians enjoyed their work, they performed until their deaths because, financially, they simply had to.

The Rolling Stones perform at Murrayfield, Edinburgh tonight, Sheffield on Sunday and Wembley Stadium, London on 11 & 12 June

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future