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.

James Maycock
Friday 04 June 1999 00:02 BST

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

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