Thursday, August 08, 2013

If the blues was money, I'd be the richest man in town

Well, my mother told my father, just before I was born,
"I got a boy child comin', he's gonna be a rollin' stone"

Some call it an urban myth, others a lie, and a few more simply a colourful tale.

But the legend that the Rolling Stones turned up at 2120 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago - the Chess Records studio - in June 1964 to pay homage to their musical godfather, Muddy Waters, only to find him outside painting the exterior, is bunk. So says Buddy Guy, one of the last of the "original" Chicago bluesmen, who countered the tale in his autobiography When I Left Home last year: 

"When the Rolling Stones came to Chess Records in 1964, they started telling everyone — and even wrote it up in books — that they saw Muddy Waters standing on a ladder where he was whitewashing the walls. They said the Mud had whitewash all over his face. For years Keith Richards repeated this story. His point was that Leonard Chess was using poor Muddy as a handyman. Leonard and Muddy are long gone, but I was there — and so was Marshall Chess — and we both know know this ain't true . . . Muddy had put Chess on the map."

Waters has, sadly long gone. As has Chess Records, now just a famous record label within the 'catalogue' of some entertainment conglomerate or other. But their collective legacy lives on. The Stones are still rolling, of course, and rolling in it, too (estimates suggest their recent tour plus the five shows they staged last November and December will have grossed around $150 million).

The Chess studio, where the Stones recorded their first UK No.1, It's All Over Now, is still there, but is now home to the Willie Dixon Blues Heaven foundation, a charity established by Dixon's family to maintain a link to the role 2120 South Michigan Avenue played in the evolution of modern music.

The studio has become a presentation theatre, where an introductory video featuring interviews with Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Mick Jagger, Marshall Chess (son of the Polish immigrants Leonard and Phil Chess who co-founded the label) and others put context around the blues, its migration from the South and its influence, especially on suburban Englishmen growing up many hundreds of miles away.

Kevin, the tour guide, somewhat rolls his eyes when I bring up the so-called British invasion. "It was something they just latched on to," he says. Trying to understand what it was that invaded the teenage lives of Jagger and Richards, Eric Clapton, Ray Davies, Steve Winwood, Jimmy Page and countless more is like trying to trace the source of the Nile.

He's polite about it, but you get the hint of an understandable frustration that these nice, mainly middle class white guys from Kent, Surrey and the London suburbs have coined it in by exploiting a form of music, and those who spawned it, which began in the poverty of the rural south, and moved north to Chicago to find a living.

As an example, Kevin commences his introduction to the presentation by asking if we'd heard of a 1962 Muddy Waters song, written by Willie Dixon, called You Need Love. Embarrassingly, blank faces all around. So perhaps its opening lines might jog the memory:

You've got yearnin' and I got burnin'
Baby you look so sweet and cunning
Baby way down inside, woman you need love
Woman you need love, you've got to have some love
I'm gonna give you some love, I know you need love
Charge it up a tad, add a Fender Telecaster and fuzzbox riff played by Jimmy Page, and you've got Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love. In 1985 a court agreed, and ruled in Dixon's favour. Robert Plant has since 'fessed up: "I just thought, 'well, what am I going to sing?' That was it, a nick. Now happily paid for. At the time, there was a lot of conversation about what to do. It was decided that it was so far away in time and influence that...well, you only get caught when you're successful. That's the game."

Led Zeppelin weren't the first British band to rework Dixon's original song: in 1966 the Small Faces recorded it as You Need Loving. Perhaps, then, Kevin's coolness towards my mention of the British Invasion is quite understandable. For 50 years, white Englishmen have been coining it on the back of music that hardly paid its originators a cent.

Musical plagiarism is, however, not only a thorny issue, but in the blues it is also highly grey. Even Waters' Rollin' Stone has its origins in the even earlier Catfish Blues. When the blues travelled north to Chicago during the 'Great Migration', Waters, John Lee Hooker, Big Bill Broonzy and all the others brought with them notes and riffs blended from folk, gospel and traditional spiritual. Blues and its more refined cousin jazz, has always been derivative. But then isn't that the case of all music?

The politics of exploitation notwithstanding, standing in what was the Chess studio is, like my visit to the Sun Studios in Memphis, something of a religious experience. The sound baffles and control room electronics have long gone, but the pictures of Waters and other memorabilia, together with Kevin's story, are essential elements in keeping alive the heritage of a musical evolution that led not only to rock music, but by turns, R&B, funk, rap and Chicago's other musical speciality, house.

I was born in the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames. As a 15-year-old, Eric Clapton would come to Kingston's riverside pubs to play Broonzy songs like Key To The Highway, and Robert Johnson's Crossroads Blues. In neighbouring Richmond, the Stones made their name at the Crawdaddy Club at the Station Hotel. Down the road in Kew were The Yardbirds - with the slightly older Clapton and, later, Jimmy Page from nearby Epsom and Jeff Beck from Carshalton.

To these leafy districts of south-west London on its border with Surrey, the music that Broonzy, Johnson, Waters, Hooker, Dixon and so many more dragged to Chicago from the sweat of the South found a home, giving birth to legends that would turn this simple and, at its best, primitive guitar music into a worldwide industry.

Chicago, to some, might be as much today about deep-dish pizza, the Cubs and the new corporate headquarters of Boeing, but to me it's about one thing. And while the tour of 2120 South Michigan Avenue may not be as rich a museum experience as Sun Studios or Graceland, its simplicity and sparsity, and its role in telling the story of Chess, Waters and Dixon, make it as culturally important as anything the Windy City has to offer. That one thing - blues music, and what it gave to the world.

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