On “Monkey Man”, from the Rolling Stones’ 1969 album Let It Bleed, Mick Jagger offered a mission statement that was self-mocking yet sincere: “Well I hope we’re not too messianic / Or a trifle too satanic / We love to play the blues.” And so they did, and still do; much of the material they performed in their early years came from Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, and Little Walter. In 2016, they returned to those roots with Blue and Lonesome, a spirited and well-received collection featuring mostly lesser-known numbers by some of the same artists.
On Chicago Plays the Stones, ten contemporary Chicago-based blues artists remake a dozen Jagger-Richards compositions. The album has the Glimmer Twins’ blessing, and their participation; Jagger plays harmonica on one track, and Richards brings his guitar to another. But the bluesification yields mixed results. Some performances invite positive comparison to the Stones’ originals; others pale next to them. The album, produced by Larry Skoller, is the inaugural release of the new label, Raisin’ Music. Skoller’s project is not, however, the first album of blues covers of Stones songs. Paint It, Blue: Songs of the Rolling Stones, released in 1997, comprised a baker’s dozen Stones numbers by such eminences as Taj Mahal, James Cotton, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Johnny Copeland, Junior Wells, and Bobby Womack. With the exception of Buddy Guy and Billy Boy Arnold, Chicago Plays the Stones lacks prominent names. Some of the lesser-known artists, however, are responsible for the album’s best moments.
“I was inspired by the challenge to take Rolling Stones songs and turn them into Chicago blues grooves, while at the same time maintaining both the Chicago blues tradition and sound and doing the same for the Rolling Stones songs,” says Skoller. “The thing was to really keep the integrity of the melody and the harmony and to have them kind of reimagined at the origins. And imagining Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson, all these guys, how they would have interpreted these songs back then if they were doing them.” Skoller’s emphasis on “reimagining” is apt since most of the songs on Chicago Plays the Stones were not written as blues. There’s often a blues feeling in Jagger’s vocals and certainly in the guitars, but the songs generally don’t follow the 12-bar structure and in some cases are more stylistically indebted to British folk music (“Play with Fire”) and American country (“Dead Flowers”).
Skoller didn’t pick any Stones songs that are straightforward blues, but there are quite a few, originals and covers. Sometimes they were released only as “B” sides of singles — “Fancy Man Blues” (B-side of “Mixed Emotions”), “Cook Cook Blues” (B-side of “Rock and a Hard Place”), “Under-Assistant West Coast Promo Man” (B-side of “Satisfaction”) — or were early-career album tracks, like “Spider and the Fly”, “Little by Little”, “Good Times, Bad Times”, and “Off the Hook”. One of the band’s biggest early hits, “19th Nervous Breakdown,” employs an altered 12-bar structure and Bo Diddley rhythms.
Chicago Plays the Stones opens strong, with John Primer, a former sideman to Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Magic Slim, storming through “Let It Bleed”. (Primer also shines on an “Angie” that substitutes anguished longing for Jagger’s rueful nostalgia.) Even better is 82-year-old harmonica player and vocalist Billy Boy Arnold’s downright nasty “Play with Fire”. Jagger, on harmonica, teams up with Buddy Guy for a fiery “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)”, with Guy tearing into the lyrics about police murders of black people. Ronnie Baker Brooks turns in a sly, R&B take on “Satisfaction”, with echoes of “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”. Best of all is Billy Branch’s “Sympathy for the Devil”. Whereas Jagger’s devil is frantic, demonic, Branch gives us a suave, seductive Lucifer, a blues man who plays dazzling harmonica as he relates his exploits throughout history (it was a great idea to transfer the “woot-wooh” vocal chorus to the harp). Jimmy Burns’ “Beast of Burden”, with Richards’ guitar and Sonny Boy Williamson-like harp from Billy Branch, is another highlight.
Other versions, however, don’t quite measure up. Leanne Faine’s “Gimme Shelter” isn’t a patch on the original; it lacks the end-of-the-world dread and terror of what, in this reviewer’s estimate, is the greatest blues-influenced rock song ever. Jimmy Burns’ loses the ironic humor of “Dead Flowers”, which works much better as a country tune. Michael Avery’s “Miss You” barely leaves an impression.
Sexual candor and skepticism, even cynicism, about heterosexual relationships, are aspects of the blues that appealed to the young Stones, and to their fans who’d grown up on sentimental, moon-June pop and for whom “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was kid stuff. (Though Jagger often was charged with misogyny, the Stones’ anti-romantic stance was appreciated by some second wave feminists, like British author Sheila Rowbotham.) So it’s surprising that the blues singers on Chicago Plays the Stones avoid the raunchy bits. John Primer’s “Let It Bleed” leaves out the lines “We all need someone we can cream on / If you want to you can cream on me”. On “I Go Wild”, a song about erotic obsession from Voodoo Lounge, Omar Coleman skips the most acrid lyric, about “Politicians’ garish wives / With alcoholic cunts like knives”. Squeamishness about the Stones’ dark side also lessened the impact of Larry McCray’s “Midnight Rambler” on Paint It, Blue, which deletes the last line, “I’ll stick my knife right down your throat / Baby and it hurts!”
Maybe, though the bowdlerizing comes from the fact that the blues, even at its raunchiest, deals with sex through metaphor while the Stones, as the above quotes show, go for the explicit.
This fall, Chicago Plays the Stones hits the road, with Ronnie Baker Brooks, Billy Branch, and other “friends” touring to promote the album. The shows, one hopes, will center the stronger performances, the ones that make the best cases for producer Skoller’s reimagining of the Jagger-Richards songbook.