Mick Jagger, Keith Richards chat Chicago blues, ‘Exhibitionism’

Ronnie Wood (from left), Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones perform during Desert Trip at the Empire Polo Field on October 14, 2016 in Indio, California. |Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Buddy Guy said of the Rolling Stones: “When they came to America, they recognized some of the greatest musicians that I had admired – Ike and Tina Turner, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf – and let America know who we were. They let white America know what the blues is. We owe those guys all the thanks in the world.

When: April 15 through July 30
Where: Navy Pier, Festival Hall B, 600 E. Grand
Tickets (time-stamped): $32- $35 for adults, $25-$27 for students, military personnel, and seniors (65+over); kids under 6, free. VIP tickets, $80. Groups (1o or more) visit BICGroups.com
Info: StonesExhibitionism.com

Guy was referring to 1964, the year the Stones also arrived at Chicago’s iconic Chess Records, where the legendary bluesman would first meet the band.

“Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon walked straight in my studio while I was singing with a bunch of white guys, who lined up against the wall while I was singing,” Guy told Rolling Stone. “I got pissed off: ‘Who in the hell are these guys?’ I had never seen a white man with hair that long and high-heeled boots before. They had come to do an audition for Chess Records.”

June 11, 1964: Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman and Brian Jones stand in the center of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. | CHICAGO SUN-TIMES FILES

The British rockers had reached their blues mecca; they had arrived at the place where the magic happened. It was Chicago blues. It was Rolling Stones blues.

“I think, really, we were intrigued by the sound of [the Chess studio], but it was also a pilgrimage in a way,” Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger said during a recent phone chat. “It was where all these [blues artists] recorded this music, in this room. We were like kids! I don’t know what they thought of us because English people had never come in there and they must have thought we were a bit odd. [Laughs] We met some of our favorites there. We met Chuck Berry and Muddy [Waters] and many others in that studio, and recorded with some of the engineers they worked with. And we recorded some stuff in there that was quite good. It was a good room. So that for us was possibly the first place in America we ever recorded.”

In a separate interview, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards added, “Recording was pretty simple then — four-track tape. But it was the room. [Some studios] had just a magical sound about them and Chess was one of them. Another one was Muscle Shoals [in Alabama]. You can’t put your finger on it. It’s just a room that pulses with whatever’s going on. They’re few and far between. When you get ’em you love ’em.”

Chess Records would be immortalized by the Rolling Stones via their 1964 release “2120 South Michigan Avenue,” named for the address of the studio, and they would return for two subsequent recording sessions over the years.

Rolling Stones ‘Exhibitionism’ to rock Navy Pier
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The link between Chicago and the Rolling Stones is an intimate one, spanning the band’s five-decade (and counting) career. That career is celebrated in “Exhibitionism,” the massive memorabilia/retrospective exhibit opening at Navy Pier April 15. It’s an exhibit that pulses with the band’s signature brand of pop, rock and Chicago blues.

Jagger and Richards talked about the influence of blues on their work and what their music has meant to the blues. And why “Exhibitionism,” as Jagger explained, “would keep you amused for an hour.”

Here are excerpts from the conversations with Jagger and Richards.

Q. Buddy Guy told Rolling Stone the blues “owes you guys all the thanks in the world.” Why did the blues affect you so much?

Mick Jagger: Maybe in my early teenage years I’d seen some blues artists on TV. I dunno, I just liked it. Again, there’s lots of reasons why suburban kids might like this. It’s also the directness of the music because pop music especially in this period was very saccharine.

Mick Jagger with the Rolling Stones at Soldier Field on Sept. 20, 2005. | Sun-Times photo by Tom Cruze

I liked pop music and I love pop music now, but in that period, it was very sort of insincere and saccharine. Blues was perhaps a more direct means of communication, and it didn’t pull as many punches. It was more grown-up. It wasn’t music for teenagers really. It was popular music. Just a different genre. The rhythms were good. I always liked it since I was 12 or 13 years old.

Artists like [those who came out of Muscle Shoals] or Howlin’ [Wolf] or Willie [Dixon] or Robert Johnson — nobody was hearing those sounds in British or American pop, for that matter. There were exceptions to that. There were people coming from Chicago who were having big success. For instance, Chuck Berry was recording for Chess. He wasn’t like an out-and-out Howlin’ Wolf-type blues singer, but he was a blues performer certainly. He had hit records which were No. 1 in Britain and America. And [we] were like, who’s this guy who records with this label called Chess? Who else do they have on that label?

Even people like Bo Diddley. Bo Diddley had hit records that were pop hit records. So, you’d go buy that Bo Diddley [album] for that one song and you’d hear all this other stuff and you realized you’re in another place, that Chicago blues world. And if you’re interested in it you start delving deeper into it.

When we would come to America, we’d have to do these interviews endlessly, [questions about] what kind of music do you play? And we’d talk about these blues singers a lot. We’d talk about Muddy, about Buddy Guy. The Beatles did that to some extent. They would talk about the artists they liked and artists who influenced them growing up. And we did the same thing. It was pretty normal stuff.

[At that time] the blues were not really liked, but black music was generally quite popular. But not necessarily this kind of [blues] music. But it’s very sweet of Buddy [to say that].

Keith Richards: I love Buddy. He’s got the most amazing memory in the world. I can remember meeting Buddy Guy; he can remember what time in the afternoon it was. What’s special about jamming with him? He’s got this amazing electricity about him. And he’s one of our last connections to this stuff. I love him dearly.

Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones performs during Desert Trip at the Empire Polo Field on October 14, 2016, in Indio, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Q. Everyone knows how the blues informed the Stones, but how did the Stones inform the blues? Where did you take it? 

Keith Richards: I don’t know. All I know, to us considering what Buddy Guy said and what others have said, Muddy Waters included, it just became a bond between us. I don’t think we thought of ourselves as the missionaries [for the blues] that we turned out to be. [LAUGHS] The collar’s in the wash.

Q. But you did become blues ambassadors.

Keith Richards:  Yeah, I guess so. White kids in America never went to the end of the dial on the radio, you know? And we did in England. And so, what we did was we played what they missed the first time around.

Mick Jagger: We started off being a blues band. We played in clubs really for a college kind of crowd and we’d kind of do some rock music. We loved pop and [in rehearsals] we’d play the same sort of stuff. We all played Buddy Holly. But we wouldn’t play that stuff on stage because we were a blues band. Everything [we play] is kind of informed by that in a way. Even if I’m moving toward some other kind of style, the blues is always present.

An assortment of blues records, including the Chess imprint, are visible amid the coffee table clutter of the Rolling Stones’ London flat in “Exhibitionism.” | Miriam Di Nunzio Photo

The Rolling Stones have a lot of different styles that they work on. We went through periods where we played almost all blues beats and ballads. So, we’re really informed by the blues. But rock music is always informed by the blues. When we play rock ‘n’ roll it’s always with a blues background.

Q. Why did blues affect you so deeply? And why did it take a British band to let white America know about this American-born genre?

Keith Richards: I can’t really tell you why. I think most American music comes from mixture of old English, Irish and Scottish and African rhythms. In England, I grew up listening to a lot of jazz cause my mum loved jazz: Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald. So, I grew up with that going on in the background, along with pop music thrown in. And then when I got into playing music I wanted to find out, where did it come from? It led me to the blues. Then I got fascinated with that. And found a bunch of guys who felt the same way.

Recordings from Chicago’s legendary Chess Records are among the albums and 45s strewn about a coffee table inside the living room of the re-imagined London flat once occupied by a then still-unknown band called The Rolling Stones. | MIRIAM DI NUNZIO PHOTO

And it really came from there. But it was particularly Chicago blues that impressed us. We just wanted to know how guys got that sound.

… Mick, Brian [Jones] and I went to see Muddy in 1963. He was doing one of those blues package tours in England. And that was the first time I saw him live and it was interesting because he did the first set with just an acoustic guitar. And the British blues audiences, they’re purists, and they loved that. Then he came back with an electric band and they booed him off. Which really surprised me. It was amazing. And all because he came on with electric guitars. … I met him later on in Chicago. Our connection with Chicago comes from Chicago music, especially South Side Chicago blues. … It was just the tightness, the way these guys played together.

Charlie Watts (from left), Mick Jagger and Keith Richards perform during a Rolling Stones concert at the Aragon Ballroom on Sept. 15, 2002. | Sun-Times photo by Tom Cruze.

Q. You played Chicago many times over the years, the cavernous arenas, the stadiums. But you also played more intimate rooms like the Aragon Ballroom (in 2002). Is it a different feeling playing the smaller venues vs. the large?  Or after all these years, is it all just “a gig is a gig is a gig”?

Keith Richards: ‘A gig is a gig’ is maybe [true of] a football stadium because there’s nothing you can do about them [night after night]. If they’re outdoors, there’s the weather [to deal with]. But the small rooms, the ballrooms and clubs and auditoriums, there you’re aware it’s a totally different [experience].

The Style Gallery at Exhibitionism includes 70 original outfits worn by the Rolling Stones, which showcase the stylistic progression and impact the band has had on the fashion world to date. | Courtesy iEC Exhibitions

Q. We have to talk about “Exhibitionism” (an 18,000-square-foot exhibit at Navy Pier featuring more than 500 rare band items, from film and fashion to music and paintings). Why did you keep all this stuff over the years?

Mick Jagger: The only thing I kept was the clothes. I don’t really have anything else. We had to pull things from many other people. We had some guitars, some artwork; there’s a lot of artwork in the exhibition. We had films and videos. … [In the exhibit] you’re walking into a series of rooms. You have to break it down. How are you gonna open? Where do you go next after the slick opening in technology hall? [So, the exhibit begins] where you go into this grimy apartment [a re-creation of the Stones’ first London flat].

The Rolling Stones’ first London flat, including the kitchen sink that Mick Jagger jokingly said contains “too many dirty dishes,” has been recreated for “Exhibitionism.” | MIRIAM DI NUNZIO PHOTO

Q. Is the apartment just as you remembered it?

Mick Jagger: Pretty much. The building still exists. It’s not far from where I’m speaking to you, actually. … There was a designer who re-creates interiors for other exhibitions, so we built it up and tried to give it the spirit of the original thing. Pretty much the same look.

Q. I can only imagine the creativity that flowed in that room, the conversations you guys had. Did all of it come rushing back to you?

Mick Jagger: I walked into it [at a London preview] and laid on the bed. I did. And I saw all the cigarette butts around me. [Laughs] I remember I said,”I don’t remember there being that many dishes in the sink,” so I started taking some out! [Laughs]

Keith Richards: I gave [the design team and curators] the keys to the warehouse and said, “See what you can find.” We gave them the tour through those vast warehouses and let ’em pick what they wanted. I found a lot of stuff I thought I’d lost. [Laughs] I found it in the exhibition, actually. There’s a pair of boots of mine. I don’t know how they got in the exhibition!

Charlie Watts (from left), Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones attend a preview of ‘The Rolling Stones: Exhibitionism” at Saatchi Gallery on April 4, 2016, in London, England. | Dave J. Hogan Photo

Q. What can people learn about the Stones from this exhibit?

Keith Richards: I don’t know. It depends on your point of view and your age. … I started bumping into an old memory at every corner of it. It’s nostalgia. But there’s lots of good stuff in there. It could be an eye-opener for non-fans. It’s worth a visit.

Q. We’ve lost so many blues artists over the past few weeks, including James Cotton, Lonnie Brooks, Chuck Berry. Is there fear that blues is disappearing because of these immeasurable losses and also because the torch is not being passed to new generation?

Mick Jagger: Honestly, I hope that’s not true. I know lots of younger people who play blues. …  Of course, it’s very sad that these people that we consider originators of certain styles [are dying]. But … everything [about the blues] is always evolving. Chuck Berry got all his licks and stage stuff from T-Bone Walker, and because he wasn’t the same as T-Bone he invented a different way of doing it. But everything evolves, and hopefully this music won’t die out with these peoples’ passing. Hopefully other people still will want to play this music. They won’t be playing it exactly the same, but they will be playing it in their own way.

Q. What’s the secret formula for the music of the Rolling Stones, music that has evolved constantly and remained relevant?

Keith Richards: I call it Charlie Watts! [Laughing] But I don’t know. If there was one, I’d bottle it. It’s something between the chemistry between Mick and Charlie and Ronnie and myself just seems to work. It keeps us young.

Q. Are there any songs that particularly are your favorites, or touch your soul in a special way?

Keith Richards: There are so many. I can’t lay one on you because then I’d think of another. “Midnight Rambler” is one I always loved to play. … I could play “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” till the cows come home. I love it.

The Rolling Stones in concert at Soldier Field on Oct. 11, 2006. | Sun-Times photo by Tom Cruze

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