It was a great day for music when the young Rolling Stones discovered the blues. Keith Richards looks back on a lifelong love affair
On first hearing the blues
It's very difficult to say - when did I identify the blues as a particular form of music? My mum was playing me jazz - a lot of Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan. I mean, it's not your country blues but, as I went on, I realised that I was brought up on a broad basis of blues music without even knowing it, so, in a way, I'm a result of what my mum played. I had a natural affinity for it, I think, so it wasn't like a conscious thing or anything like that. You know, I didn't think in terms of black or white then. You didn't know whether Chuck Berry was black or white - it was not a concern. It was just what came in the ears and, my, what it did to you. And then I slowly realised that what these cats were doing was closely related to what I'd grown up listening to. You know, it was more stripped down, it was more rural. And then I went into this thing of finding out - where did he get it from? And without actually being able to call up Chuck Berry - I was 15 - and say, "Hey, Chuck, where do you get that from?", you went through record labels and [found out] Muddy Waters had been the guy to introduce Chuck Berry to Chess Records - then there's a connection. Then I got into Muddy Waters and then, before I knew it, that leads you immediately to Robert Johnson, and then you're before the war and you're into this other stuff - and a lot of it's, like, pretty rubbish.
On trying to hear more of the blues
I had to stick people up. We would borrow records and lend records, and stuff. Some guys had interesting sounds, and you sort of gravitated towards people that had a collection of records. And you try and steal one here and there, or just borrow. Let's put it like that: borrow. It wasn't just necessarily blues - there was a lot of folk music involved. We'd pick up anything we could listen to. I mean, my experience of art school is basically sitting in the john all day playing guitar when I wasn't forced to draw some fat old lady. And there I found a whole hotbed of music, where we distilled this stuff and listened and tried to figure out what we've been missing out on. You know, the BBC had not been particularly generous in its deliverance of blues and esoteric kinds of music. You started to search out certain guys that had more knowledge, more material than you did, and you had to know where it came from. So then I went to study this stuff and I realised that these blues men, they're talking about getting laid. And there's me studying what they're doing, but I ain't getting laid. I mean, there was something missing in my life - obviously, to be a bluesman I have to go see what this lemon juice is, running down your leg. And you know, these guys are actually living a life - they're not studying. I loved rock'n'roll but there's got to be something behind the rock'n'roll. There had to be. We found, of course, that it was the blues. And, therefore, if you really want to learn the basics, then you've got to do some homework. We all felt there was a certain gap in our education, so we all scrambled back to the 20s and 30s to figure out how Charlie Patton did this, or Robert Johnson, who, after all, was and still probably is the supremo. Blues didn't just mean doing one thing or another - there was a lot of room to manoeuvre around the blues.
On blues singers' names
It made me sick - my name's Keith Richards. It hardly makes it against Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters, does it? On my first guitar I had Boy Blue written - just pathetic. But that was as good as I got at the time.
On learning to play the blues
Once you start to play, you realise you've got to know how he did that. "This man just bent the string three yards! And made it sound simple! And he's got a rhythm going here that is unbelievable and he's blind and he's ... " I mean, it's just something you've got to do. You have no choice. I mean, we had other things to do and everything, but once you got bitten by the bug, you had to find out how it's done, and every three minutes of soundbite would be like an education. We did learn our stuff, though and, quite honestly, the blues ain't just necessarily black. We found that out eventually.
On the Stones' love of the blues
Mick was as much of a maniac. Brian as well, an absolute maniac. Charlie was more broad-based - that is, more jazz - but very much in this. We turned Charlie Watts on to Jimmy Reed, which, for a drummer, on the surface of it is the most boring job in the world. But it was the sheer monotony, the sheer non-stop throttling hypnotism that got Charlie into the blues. And these cats are great. After all, they were all jazz drummers in one form or another. The thing we didn't realise then is that cats in the States didn't put everybody in a bag. In England, you were put in a bag - he's jazz, he's this, he's pop, he's rock, da-da-da.
On recording the Stones' first demos, and recording the blues
I very barely remember it, because, to me, I was in heaven, 'cause I was actually in a recording studio. I mean, to me, that was the whole point - you'd died and gone to heaven. You're actually in a room built to make sounds, and there's actual microphones. Another thing to do with the blues is how they were recorded. They were done on the quick, and some of that stuff was made on wire, not even tape, let alone digital. So you'd have to work out where to put the microphone to get the sound of the room - you know, where John Lee Hooker would put his foot. And you'd sort of work your area. Making regular records - orchestrated and produced records - you didn't get a chance to figure out the room, and figure out what you can do. Every room is different - you get a bounce back here, and you put the microphone a little further back. You could hear on Robert Johnson records where they'd deliberately pulled the microphone back to get more guitar, and so he's wailing over the top. It's one thing doing it, another thing to capture it. And I think, in England, a lot of us got interested in how to capture it. How to get that sound right. These cats would leave a microphone over the back of the room, and then there'd be a drummer slapping around over there. And it's the best drum sound you ever heard. You know, there's not just one way to make a record, there's not just one way to record an instrument. If you had Beethoven going, and 50 violins, then you'd treat it a different way. You got one cat with a foot and maybe some guy slapping a bass somewhere round the back, and you could hear them playing the room, as well, and not just the instrument. And I think making records was really the other great drive for most of us English blokes to get in a studio and figure out eventually how it's done. [In English studios] you had to fight this whole other system of how records are made - it was: "Mind my microphone!" Well, I'm not trying to hurt it, you know. "You're playing too loud into it, and you've moved it!" and all that sort of stuff, but that's called learning how to record. They were applying European techniques to recording, to making music, that don't apply to that system at all. So you did find yourself, for quite a while, head to head with this sort of monolithic idea of British recording engineers. You just learned by trial and error. Trying to transfer it on to tape was a pain for years. I mean, anybody will tell you you're up against this monolithic idea of, like, the correct method of recording. But we're not looking for the correct method, we're looking for the incorrect method: I want to see how much that microphone can take; if a guy is over there and yelling, I want to see whether the voice still carries. It's trial and error, trial and error, and mostly error.
On what the bluesmen thought when the Stones visited Chess Records studios, the home of Chicago blues
They went, "Ah, man, I don't believe it, you're playing our music." They were just so effusive, so sweet - "Come over to the house," you know. I mean, you'd died and gone to heaven - it was the cats, gentlemen in the truest sense of the term. They'd stab you in the back, but gentlemen. They were so interested in what we were doing, and realising, at the same time, that we didn't know shit, really. They would all help, it was all encouragement, and that. To me, that was one of the most heartwarming things. 'Cause you figure you're gonna walk in [and they'd think], "Snooty little English guys and a couple of hit records." Not at all. I got the chance to sit around with Muddy Waters and Bobby Womack, and they just wanted to share ideas. And you were expecting, "Oh, English kids making money out of me," and it could well have happened. But they wanted to know how we were doing it, and why we wanted to do it, you know.
On the relative status of the bluesmen in the US and Europe
Their US audience was getting smaller every year because they were now considered old hat. They liked Europe - they'd come over once a year. American black music was starting to slide into Motown, which was far more slick and more organised. [The bluesmen] felt they were being a little left out by their own, and this influx of interest from Europe, especially England, really caught their interest. I've no doubt they all looked at each other and said: "Well, that's the strangest audience I've ever seen - they're a bunch of wimpy English guys with long hair going 'Ooh!'"
On making a No 1 out of Howlin' Wolf's Little Red Rooster
We must have been wearing brass balls that day, when we decided to put that out as a single. I think we just thought it was our job to pay back, to give them what they've given us. They've given us the music and the friendship, and let's stand up, be men, and give them a blues, and it went to No 1. Mr Howlin' Wolf, he didn't mind at all. It was maybe a moment of bravado, in retrospect, but it worked. We have been blessed by the music that we listened to, and let's see if we can actually spin it back around and make American white kids listen to Little Red Rooster. You had it all the time, pal, you know. You just didn't listen.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017