The Rolling Stones have always been labeled as a rock ‘n’ roll band, an easy classification considering their various entries into pop, folk, reggae, and even disco. Especially by the mid ‘70s, the band was willing to embrace several stylistic outlets. But an appreciation for one particular form of music has stood out consistently throughout their entire career. The blues have played a major role in the band’s output since that fateful day in 1960, when Keith Richards and Mick Jagger became re-acquainted at the Dartford railway station. The two were childhood friends but their families had moved apart years prior. A quick chat became an in-depth discussion on – what else – music. Jagger was carrying records by Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, and Richards expressed his mutual interest. As simple as that, because of a mutual admiration for blues, perhaps the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band to ever grace a stage was born.
Waters is considered the father of modern Chicago blues, one of the first forms of blues where electric guitar and amplified harmonica contributed immensely to the overall sound. It packed more flexibility than other forms of blues, often constrained by standard scales and techniques. The extension of Chicago blues made it ripe for rock ‘n’ infusions. Since Muddy Waters helped popularize the style, he also became directly responsible for the British blues explosion of the ‘60s, where acts like the Stones, Cream, and Jethro Tull took urban blues and combined it with jam-band and folk aesthetics. Much of it would be called rock ‘n’ roll, if only because it resembled a massively creative smorgasbord of various genres at the time. The Rolling Stones, which was conceived as a blues covers band, were the leading force of the movement. It seems very fitting that their name derives from the Muddy Waters track “Rollin’ Stone”. What better way to honor the man largely responsible for inspiring one of the most productive stylistic movements in contemporary music?
As Keith Richards recalls, blues proved to be a comfortable stepping point for the band. Believe it or not, the Rolling Stones couldn’t always churn out a classic album ever year. They had to learn the ropes of songwriting like anyone else. In this case, nothing helped than more than the blues, specifically the Chicago blues of Muddy Waters. “We got heavily into the blues, Chicago blues particularly because every major, modern blues artist was coming out of Chicago,” Richards said. “We weren’t writing our own songs then. We were just playing mostly blues & rock ‘n roll… Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters stuff.” Berry and Diddley comprised much of the material on early Rolling Stones set lists, and from 1962 to ’65 their original material was somewhat sparse. However, it didn’t take long for the Stones to start writing their own classics, even as most of them showcased an undercurrent of blues that was welcomed at the time, as bands like The Yardbirds and Cream were being received well for flaunting similar influences. In fact, the public was so receptive of blues covers in 1964 that the Rolling Stones’ first album hit #1 in the UK for 51 weeks, despite 11 of its 12 tracks being covers — many of them blues-oriented.
The Rolling Stones’ illustrious discography shows the blues as a continuous aspect of their sound, even through varying interpretations. Most Rolling Stones albums incorporate the blues with the ingenuity inherent in the band’s original songwriting. Some releases in particular tend to stand out for blues fans. The Rolling Stones’ 1969 release, Let It Bleed, is a nice example of the band’s maturing appreciation for the blues heroes they remain indebted to. Richards used the term “blues opera” to describe album track “Midnight Rambler”, while the inclusion of a grimy autoharp over descriptions of desirable vices on the self-titled effort further enforced the style. A superb cover of Robert Johnson’s somber blues classic “Love in Vain” also appears on the release. The swanky, slow-moving blues of their next record, Sticky Fingers, showed another flavor, before the classic Exile on Main Street threw it all into a blender. Out came out a genius mixture of their sprawling sound, with blues – most naturally – being the driving force. Just like the blues, The Rolling Stones remain timeless. Their undying appreciation for the likes of Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Slim Harpo is a major reason why.