The year was 1979. The place was the Venue, a well-appointed nightclub near London’s Victoria Station. The packed house cheered as the lanky figure of Charlie Watts stood up behind his drum kit. With a towel draped around his wet shoulders, he grinned “This is the best band I’ve ever played with”
This wasn’t an unannounced club date by the Rolling Stones, but a gig put together by Stones founder and mastermind, pianist Ian Stewart. Another member of the Stones, Mick Jagger, sat in the audience enjoying the show by what Stewart dubbed Rocket 88, with special guest Cousin Joe Pleasant from Wallace, Louisiana. The set covered a multiplicity of styles from traditional New Orleans jazz to swing and R&B and centered on piano players Stewart, Cousin Joe and Dick Green. The pianos were framed by a three piece horn section led by saxophonist Dick Morrisey, best known for his work with the Average White Band. The guitarist was British blues legend Alexis Korner.
After a couple of songs from Rocket 88 Cousin Joe sat at one of the pianos and took everything over, playing songs from his extensive catalog. The band hadn’t rehearsed; Joe just told them what key each song was. Joe wove stories around the songs about his life: “I’m Cousin Joe from New Orleans, been in all the New York bands.”
Joe was flying, the crowd was going crazy and the band wore big smiles as he crashed through “I’m Drinking:” “Whiskey makes you frisky,” he sang, “but this wine makes you lose your cotton picking mind.” Joe then took a solo piano turn and launched into his classic “Chicken a la King:” “Lord I ate so many hot dogs/ Couldn’t look a cold dog in the face/ I ate ’em with chili sauce/ and I ate ’em with tomato paste/ I went down to New Orleans/ to the place I was born/ Where I ate so many chickens/ They cacklng all in my bones/ Sunday I ate fried chicken/ Monday chicken fricassee/ Tuesday chicken a la King/ Wednesday chicken giblets/ Thursday chicken stew/ Friday I had scrambled eggs and you know that’s chicken too.”
When he finished Joe said “Thank you music lovers. There’s a young man in the crowd and a fine blues singer too and I hope he makes enough to pay the rent … Mick Jagger.”
Then Joe hit them with his haymaker, “Life’s a One Way Ticket.” Framing his dramatic slow blues in a classic New Orleans piano accompaniment, he sang “Life is a one way ticket and there ain’t no second time around… When you got your money baby buy everything you should. When you six feet in the ground all the pounds in the world won’t do you no good.”
At his table, surrounded by men in dark glasses, Jagger laughed at the line as the crowd howled its approval.
“It’s a performance getting them all together,” said Stewart a couple of days later at the Stones’ Chelsea office. “The fact that Charlie Watts is a Rolling Stone is beside the point. He’s perfect for this music. This isn’t a fad. Great music like this will never go out of fashion. Almost every place we play is a sellout. This is the most powerful swinging music of all time.”
Despite the presence of two members of the band, the Venue was not packed with Rolling Stones fans. Jagger was able to sit calmly in the crowd even when a few shouts for him came up. “I don’t think we’ve got too many out and out Rolling Stones fans coming,” Stewart noted. “I don’t think people are coming expecting to see Mick Jagger. If anything we’ve got people coming who remember when it used to be Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated.”
I cite this anecdote to underscore how essential Louisiana’s music is to the Rolling Stones, and not just because they covered Irma Thomas’ recording of “Time Is On My Side” and the Allen Toussaint-penned hit “Fortune Teller” recorded by Benny Spellman. There’s been a lot of speculation as to why Quint Davis chose the Stones to headline the 50th anniversary of Jazz Fest, and I think it’s less about the festival needing the Rolling Stones than the Stones wanting to play this legendary festival. Now that it didn’t happen you might consider the lost opportunity is as meaningful to them as it is to their fans.
When Keith Richards and Mick Jagger met at the Dartford train station in the early 1960s it was a Chuck Berry record Keith was holding that attracted Mick’s attention. Mick had been writing to Chess records and getting catalog items shipped to him. Both young musicians devoured the music on the American blues, R&B and rock & roll records they could get their hands on. “With Mick and me at the beginning,” writes Keith in his autobiography, Life, “We’d get, say, a new Jimmy Reed record, and I’d learn the moves on guitar and he would learn the lyrics… And we had fun doing it.”
At that point they weren’t trying to be pop stars, or represent mods or rockers. They wanted to sound like Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and Little Walter. Unlike many of his English blues guitar contemporaries, Richards was uninterested in reproducing flashy chorus-long solos. He was listening more to Hubert Sumlin and Jimmy Rogers, practicing licks and grooves more than solos, and he looked at himself more as a rhythm than a lead guitarist.
The scene for hard core musicians looking to play this music was limited. Mick and Keith would go to hear Alexis Korner’s Blue Incorporated, with Ian Stewart and Charlie Watts, at the Ealing Jazz Club on Saturday nights. Both would sit in with the band on occasion, and this is where they met Brian Jones, who impressed them with his slide guitar playing. Ian Stewart and Jones were putting a band together in 1962 and Mick and Keith auditioned for it. Stewart apparently wanted to hire Mick, but Jagger insisted he and Richards were a team, a savvy call. They all knew they needed Charlie Watts on drums, but he was in demand and they had to establish themselves on the larger circuit in order to afford him. They booked gigs all over London to accomplish that task, and when Bill Wyman joined on bass the lineup was set. The band started building up such a following that they attracted manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who signed them to Decca Records. At this point it was decided that Stewart shouldn’t be in the band he started. He still played with them on record and at some live shows, but “England’s newest hit-makers” became the five other guys in the band. Stewart apparently didn’t mind. He became the band’s driver and a kind of spiritual leader. One suspects that the world of pop stardom that the Stones were being groomed for was not to his taste.
“It was his vision,” Richards writes of Stewart, “and basically he picked who was going to be in it. Far more than anybody actually realizes, he was the spark and the energy of the organization that actually kept it together in its early days.”
The early Stones were still Stewart’s band, playing fierce versions of American blues and R&B. The Watts/Wyman rhythm section was a locomotive that gave the Stones a swinging velocity that was unique among their peers. The licks, rhythm patterns and riffs Richards and Jones studied meticulously became the architecture of the Stones sound. Solos barely existed. It was all about the terrific four bar phrase beaten into a trance pattern, two guitars playing counter rhythmic patterns against each other. Later, when Jagger and Richards started writing their own material, this approach became crucial to the band’s sound. The hits usually featured unusually memorable and melodic riffs. Jagger had an uncanny ability to hang a relaxed yet intense vocal on the top of all this, as rhythmically sophisticated as the exchanges between the others. It was a collective sound, not a soloist’s showcase, that really set it off.
The Rolling Stones never really lost touch with the blues and they never forgot where it came from. On their most recent album, Blue and Lonesome, they returned to the concept they started out with, playing covers of blues favorites. There are three songs on the record by Marksville, Louisiana native Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs.
“Little Walter Jacobs was one of the best singers of the blues,” writes Richards. “His singing was overshadowed by the phenomenal harp, which was based on a lot of Louis Armstrong’s cornet licks. Our thing was playing Chicago blues; that was where we took everything that we knew, that was our kickoff point, Chicago. Look at that Mississippi River. Where does it come from? Where does it go? Follow that river all the way up and you’ll end up in Chicago. Also follow the way those artists were recorded. There were no rules. If you looked at the regular way of recording things, everything was recorded totally wrong. But what is wrong and what is right? What matters is what hits the ear. Chicago blues was so raw and raucous and energetic. If you tried to record it clean, forget about it. Nearly every Chicago blues record you hear is an enormous amount over the top, loading the sound on in layers of thickness. When you hear Little Walter’s records, he hits the first note on the harp and the band disappears until that note stops, because he’s overloading it. When you’re making records, you’re looking to distort things, basically. … What you’re looking for is where the sounds just melt into one another and you’ve got that beat behind it, and the rest of it just has to squirm and roll its way through. If you have it all separated, it’s insipid. What you’re looking for is power and force, without volume—an inner power—a way to bring together what everybody in that room is doing and make one sound. So it’s not two guitars, piano, bass and drums, it’s one thing, not five. You’re there to create one thing.”
Jazz Fest went on without the Rolling Stones, but the Stones made sure they didn’t miss a chance to reconnect with their roots by scheduling a New Orleans show on their No Filter tour. Time waits for no one, but the music moves on relentlessly.
The Rolling Stones performed at the Superdome in 1981. Go to OffBeat.com for Randy’s Savoie’s recollections.
Sunday, July 14, 2019, 7:30 p.m.