“Sometime in early 2015 Keith called me and said, ‘Listen to Blue and Lonesome, you’ll love it,’… and I did.” Is how Ronnie Wood remembers it all beginning. ‘Blue and Lonesome’ is a song by one of the best exponents of the blues harp, Little Walter and it would prove to be the catalyst for The Rolling Stones to record an album of blues classics.
Walter Jacobs was born in 1930 in rural Louisiana; he moved to Chicago, aged 16, and began playing the clubs with Big Bill Broonzy. Jacobs recorded for the first time in 1947; the following year he toured and recorded with Muddy Waters’ band. The power of his harmonica added great intensity to many a blues record and soon he was offered the chance to record under his own name. In 1952 he cut ‘Juke’, as Little Walter & His Night Cats for the Checker label, and it made No. 1 on the R&B charts.
One of his best known recordings is a song called, ‘Blue With A Feeling’, not one he wrote himself, but one written by Rabon Tarrant, the drummer with Jack McVea and His All Stars. McVea was from California and played the saxophone, his band released their version of the song on the Black & White label and six years later, Little Walter, recorded his version of the same song, which became the sixth of his hits in just over a year on the Billboard R&B charts.
Jacobs adapted the original, just like every bluesman or woman, both before him and ever since, who have remodelled and remade earlier songs; in the case of ‘Blues With A Feeling’ Little Walter modernised the lyrics and put his own unique instrumental spin on the original tune with his brilliant harmonica playing.
This is exactly what the Rolling Stones have done with their album, Blue & Lonesome. They have taken songs that they have loved for six decades or more and made them their own. At the heart of their album are four Little Walter songs, all of which feature Mick jagger’s harp playing, which is, as if it were needed, the final proof that he should be acknowledged as one of the great blues harmonica players. The tonality of his playing adds incredible depth to the 10 songs on which he plays harp.
“They seem to come off, the Little Walter tracks. They’re certainly not the most obvious songs to do.” – Mick
Perhaps most surprising, given the Stones’ love for the blues, is that this is the first time they have recorded any of Walter Jacobs’ songs. In their early days on the London club scene they would play ‘I Got To Find My Baby’, a relatively obscure song that Jacobs recorded in 1954, but never has one made it onto tape before now.
The American jazz and blues magazine Down Beat once said of Little Walter, “He almost single-handedly fashioned the stylistic approach for harmonica which has since become standard for the genre and has been emulated by virtually every blues harmonica player.” It’s something not lost on Mick: “It was certainly a challenge to try and play Little Walter’s songs: it’s a bit like trying to copy Jimi Hendrix songs, as a guitar player.”
‘Just Your Fool’ was recorded in December 1960 and released as Checker 1013, coupled with ‘I Got To Find My Baby’, the song the Stones played in 1963 in London’s clubs. Neither side of Walter’s record was a hit on the Billboard R&B charts: testimony to Mick’s point that these are not the most obvious songs to cover.
‘Hate To See You Go’ was recorded 12 August 1955 and became the B-side of a single that same year, which features Robert Lockwood Jr. and David Miles on guitar, Willie Dixon on bass and Fred Below on drums; they are billed as Little Walter and His Jukes on this record. According to Mick, “I played Little Walter’s ‘Hate To See You Go’ to the band in rehearsals many years ago, because I really love this song. Charlie was fascinated by the drumming.”
“Freddy Below is a great subtle drummer, really, although he’s feet-first and it’s noisy. But it’s actually very subtle, the pickups he does. He isn’t just straight-ahead. He plays lovely things with his feet.” – Charlie
Below did so much to create the rhythmic structure of Chicago blues, and especially its offbeat. He was, in his early days, a jazz drummer and as well as being a member of Little Walter’s band, Below played on numerous Chess recordings as a session musician, including hits by Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Otis Rush and Howlin’ Wolf – it’s Below on Chuck Berry’s ‘Carol’ and ‘Little Queenie’; both are songs that have been recorded by the Stones, as well as many others they covered from this period. It’s also Charlie’s ‘offbeat’ that has done so much to define The Rolling Stones.
“It’s that jazz style of drumming that makes Chess recordings so great. Today, virtually, no one plays the blues properly, because they don’t swing… no one except Charlie who swings like a mother.” – Don Was, producer of Blue & Lonesome
‘I Gotta Go’ is another B-side, this one recorded in April 1955 and released with ‘Roller Coaster’, which made No. 6 on the Billboard R&B chart later that same year. ‘Blue and Lonesome’ is the most modern of the Little Walter tracks, having originally been recorded in 1959 – the original features some brilliant harp playing. The Stones’ version is no mere cover; it brings a freshness to the song that is highlighted in Mick’s dazzling harp solo, which is no mere pastiche or copy, and Ronnie’s excellent lead guitar is completely different from the original.
Walter toured Europe in 1962, but after returning to the USA his career hit the buffers. Jacobs was a heavy drinker, and he liked to fight, and after a vicious brawl on the day after Valentine’s Day 1968 he died of coronary thrombosis; Little Walter was 37 years old. As John Lee Hooker said of the innovative and much admired bluesman, “He’s got a lot a soul!”
Keith calling Ronnie to tell him about ‘Blue and Lonesome’ turned out to be very fortuitous. According to Don Was. “We were recording some new songs and we just hit a wall on this one particular track. We needed to ‘cleanse the palate’ and the ginger for the palate came about when Keith said, ‘Let’s play Blue and Lonesome.’ When they finished the song everyone knew something special was happening, and as Don says, “There had always been a loose plan that someday they would make a blues album, and so as soon as ‘Blue and Lonesome’ had finished, I said, OK, let’s do another one.”
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