Keith Richards Sings the Blues

The iconic Rolling Stones guitarist reveals his passion for Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and the “variations within limitations” of three chords

Listen and read: a never-published 1987 interview

By Brian Keizer

Late Friday night has turned into early Saturday morning in March 1987. In a small jingle studio, Studio 900 on Broadway in Manhattan, Keith Richards is leading a who’s who of rock and rollers through an expansive tear-down and rave-up of the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie.”

Keith is playing his Telecaster. Mick Taylor is on guitar as well. Steve Jordan is on drums, Don Covay is on co-lead and backup vocals. Bernie Worrell is on the keys, and Keith is singing. Each time the song circles back to that memorable refrain: “Wake up little Susie, Wake up little Susie , Wake up little Susie, we gotta go…” Covay chimes in with a great bass note to complete the chorus: “…home.” And as the bass note sustains, Keith kicks the band into the bridge of “Jumping Jack Flash,” which they careen through like a funhouse ride before slamming back into another verse of “Wake Up Little Susie.” Keith kicks his leg up a few times with that flourish you’ve seen onstage and in all those concert films.

It’s a gas. And they rock it for a good twenty minutes.

The X-Pensive Winos (from left) Waddy Wachtel, Ivan Neville, Steve Jordan, Keith Richards, Charley Drayton, Bobby Keys

In his autobiography, Life, Keith succinctly describes March 1987 as such: “The big betrayal by Mick, which I find hard to forgive, a move that seemed almost deliberately designed to close down the Rolling Stones, was his announcement in March 1987 that he would go on a tour with his second solo album Primitive Cool… After that I decided, fuck it, I want a band.”

I met Keith right in the middle of that month. Being a bandleader was on his mind. The formation of the X-Pensive Winos had begun. So it was a great time to consider Muddy Waters, the greatest bandleader in blues history, whose band was like Dizzy Gillespie’s or Art Blakey’s bands: an incubator for these up-and-coming greats in their respective musical styles.

Later, as the wee wee hours give way to the dawn, and Keith and company are listening to the playback of the night’s work in the control room, Steve Jordan declares that “Wake Up Little Susie” felt “historic.” Keith agrees with a rueful shrug and remarks, “Well, I don’t have to write that one.” Keith discusses in that chapter in Life how his main co-conspirator in forming this band was Jordan (the ex-Letterman band drummer who had helped out in the recording of the Stones’ Dirty Work and who had been the drummer for Keith’s homage to Chuck Berry, the movie Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll). Keith has just finished working on post-production of the movie, and he and Jordan intermittently trade imitations of director Taylor Hackford. They are obviously in the early stages of a deep brotherhood.

Chuck Berry performs with Keith Richards at The Fox Theater in St Louis during filming of the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll

So how is it that I, a week shy of 21 years old, a college blues DJ at Columbia University’s WKCR, found his way to this studio to hang with Keith Richards?

It began with a call from Larry Sessler, son of Freddy Sessler, a longtime compatriot and protector of the pirate economy that surrounded rock’s most legendary outlaw for so many years. Larry called me at the station late one night, and asked me to help start a whisper campaign for a Mick Taylor show at My Father’s Place, a club in Port Washington, NY. The whisper was to suggest that Keith Richards would be showing up.

Additionally, Larry says he’s with Keith right then and there, and Keith wants to hear a set of J.B. Lenoir on my next show to test my knowledge. I do a five-song set of J.B., including his banned recordings. Later, Larry asks that I make Keith a mixtape—the only song Keith specifically requested was Howlin’ Wolf’s “Going Down Slow,” the original from the Wolf record with the rocking chair on the cover.

I’m awash with excitement and doubt. Worst case scenario: I’m making a mixtape for Larry, and I’m helping him promote a Mick Taylor gig. Fine by me. No worries.

Fast forward to that Saturday night at My Father’s Place, the club just down the road apiece from Keith’s Long Island homestead. The whisper campaign had worked. The place was packed. Mick rips up the joint, but Keith doesn’t show. Backstage after the gig, Larry promises he’s going to introduce me to Keith. It’s about a month away from our Muddy Waters’ birthday broadcast, and the blues festival where we take over all programming for a full weekend, so I tell Larry I’d really like to interview Keith about Muddy and the blues. Larry says he’ll see what he can do.

The Tuesday night before the April 4th Muddy birthday broadcast, I get a call from Larry Sessler: Get down to Studio 900 pronto because Keith is going to give you the interview tonight.

If I’d opened with questions about the current state of the Stones, I’m pretty sure I’d be bounced out on my ear, but as the Stones are essentially the greatest white blues band, talking about the blues is always freighted with issues of identity and apprenticeship as the original British blues aficionados became British invaders and rich rock stars, while blues remains a bar and festival staple but not a gravy train. I am, in fact, happy that Keith sees me as a “blues boy” (his words) and not a rabid Stones fan (which I am).

Turns out Keith got the mixtape, he discusses the Tommy McClennan track on the tape and the early teenage Aretha tracks. Keith tells me that he was trying to look after his infant twin daughters at the same time he was giving the mixtape a first listen.

We bantered a bit off the record about the similarities between Keith and Muddy’s position as aural anchors in their bands. At times, drummers shadow them instead of just keeping the beat — Muddy with his resonant falling fifths, and Keith and Charlie with their particular back and forth. Sometimes Keith takes the lead, and then falls back to let the groove manifest, propelling that quintessential Stones swing. It was clear from the beginning, Keith wanted to talk about what he was no doubt an expert on: Muddy Waters and leading a band.

The following interview was played once on the airwaves of WKCR on April 4, 1987 and never again. It has been transcribed as an exclusive for Cuepoint. You can read an excerpt following, and click the SoundCloud play button to listen to the full conversation.

Keith Richards: I’m here talking with you because I got into [Muddy Waters] very early on. It takes an awful lot of dedication and an awful lot of… it’s almost impossible to find like five, six guys that can actually live on each other’s backs for the length of time necessary to make a unit sound that tight. And that’s really what’s required. If you listen to the best of Muddy Waters, you always have to come back to Muddy when you’re talking about this because that band was just superb.

I remember when Muddy Waters first came to England with his electric band. Of course, his audience was these really sort of academic little spotty-faced student types, you know, and their idea of the blues was like when Muddy had come to England a few times before with his acoustic guitar and kind of did an “Uncle Tom” number. And that’s the blues to them.

When he got up there with his electric band for the first time—after about the third visit—he brought his whole band. [The audience] booed him off. It’s a very strange thing: these are the people that made it possible for Muddy to bring his music outside of America and turn on the world. But they had their own concept of what it should be, and they were NOT willing to take Muddy’s word for it that it could go like this. Immediately, he came onstage with his electric band they booed him off, and said “rock ‘n’ roll,” which is also a kind of a backhanded compliment because to me there’s not really much of a difference. Rock ‘n’ roll is just another way of marketing the same kind of music.

Muddy Waters, performing live on U.K. television, 1968

But it was the most amazing thing [that] one minute they’re going “Oh Muddy Waters, fantastic,” but they really did want a farm-boy plucking away on an acoustic—nothing wrong with that because Robert Johnson sounded like an orchestra—it’s not that there’s anything wrong with an acoustic guitar, but Muddy had already proved for many years that you could bring it into the contemporary era and still make it mean something and even enhance it. But the audience wasn’t prepared to accept it. That’s kind of weird because those people were the only reason he was there. And they’re saying “come on.” That’s so bizarre.

Brian Keizer: Tell me how you first got into the blues.

When I’m about 13 — rock ‘n’ roll. Now, in England you had no idea who came from where, who was what. You didn’t know Chuck Berry was black or that Carl Perkins was white.

Maybe Elvis you knew about. I’m talking ‘56, ‘57 now. But the minute I heard that music—Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis. We didn’t know shit from shinola. The sound came in over the airwaves, and hit us like a ton of bricks. That’s what I want to play. If I’m gonna play an instrument, that’s what I want to do. That’s the first step. So then I started to buy a few records over the next couple of years, and then you start to find out a little bit more about the guys that are playing.

And then you start backtracking. So Chuck Berry was like my main man because he happened to be one of the first I heard. If I could play like that, then I’m in rock ‘n’ roll pigshit heaven forever. Boom, no problem.

Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry and Keith Richards at Chuck Berry’s Los Angeles home during the filming of Taylor Hackford’s documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, 1986

Oh, he’s on Chess Records. Who else is on Chess Records? This guy called Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Little Walter. Then you start to backtrack and find out where it came from, and then I eventually started to connect it up with what I knew about music in the first place which is from jazz—Louis Armstrong. There was no real difference, but there was a gap there. Where did these guys get it from? They can’t just all have popped out of the woodwork at the same time spontaneously. What was their catalyst? If I hear somebody good, I wanna know who he listened to. I want to figure out the moves.

Myself, and most other guys who were interested in playing music, spent half of our time backtracking trying to find out who was who, where did they came from. Because you didn’t get much. Muddy was one album issued in 8 or 9 years. You didn’t get a lot. In England, an American record got released if it had sold so many copies in America. That was their way, their yardstick of whether they were going to release the record.

Of course, Muddy Waters records were not selling enough for them to be interested. In other words, you would only get the Top 10 hits, great though many of them were. But that’s all you got. You had to be a musician and want to find out. So I backtracked Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, back to Big Maceo, just after the war. Beautiful! “Worried Life Blues” really starts me shivering, then I go back before the war—Robert Johnson, Blind Blake. Right. Now I’ve really got the thread. And that’s the way I got into the blues.

Muddy’s other talents were his ability to write lyrics, and his ability to make a total sound overshadowed maybe his playing. In a way, maybe that’s right, because I don’t think he’s a great blues player, but he has such a great understanding of the blues and knows exactly how to put that into his music.

Talking for myself, I’ve never stopped playing the blues. I don’t play it as well as I’d like to. Some nights I surprise myself. But still, I don’t stop. When I’m lost musically, I go back to that and touch and listen to that. There’s just so much untapped areas of the blues. The great thing about the blues is that it’s one of the most limited forms musically of any music. The most incredibly fascinating thing is that the more limited or seemingly limited from an academic point of view, the more you can get out of it because the variations within the limitations become—they just don’t stop.

If you can do that musically with something as limited as the blues with three chords, if you can still find and express things through that after all these years, then in a way it puts Schoenberg and Shostakovich to shame, because they are out there flailing around chucking everything to the wind. It’s theory and intellectual. Avant-garde. It’s almost crass. In a way, it’s important to work within strict limitations because then you learn there are none. But you’ll never do that if you don’t restrict yourself. The musical restrictions are very important because they make you explore every possible avenue to try and see what you can do. And it doesn’t stop. I mean, blues are like breathing. As long as you got it, you’re alive and when you ain’t, you’re dead.

Primo Muddy Waters track: “Louisiana Blues.” Gotta be that riff.

KR: When I think of Muddy’s records, I do basically think of the first band. That to me is what he had to work with when everybody burnt out. As it went on in the 60s and the 70s, Muddy was no longer playing to his own audience. That’s the other weird thing when you come to be recognized as a great blues artist, and you’re not playing to the people or the atmosphere that actually created what it is that you’re playing for.

Muddy Waters and Robert Cray performing in Sacramento, California on January 1, 1970

Suddenly, you’re playing to a bunch of white college kids—not that there’s anything wrong with that—but sometimes they take on a different attitude because they can’t come to terms with it. For 20 or 30 years, they’re playing juke joints and places on the South Side and slowly, in an unstoppable way, the bigger they get, the less they’re playing to that section of society that the whole thing evolved from. It’s known as a declension. The bigger you get, the less you get to do it for the people that you originally started to do it for. For me it’s kind of weird because in an ideal situation, why can’t you do it for both?

The fact is [that] Muddy Waters in the 70s is playing a certain kind of a gig where they’re probably less black people in the audience than there are at a rock ‘n’ roll concert. Muddy, as they all did, got an early introduction when they went to Europe when they started playing all these college or academic scenes. The weird thing is that the people who got the music started around the world were those kind of guys we all hate—not musicians but schoolteacher types—spotty, buck-teethed, very earnest and academi, they knew the matrix number of every record.

And you wondered what the hell are they in there for in the first place. But they were the kind who booed Muddy off when he came on stage with an electric guitar. They were gonna tell Muddy Waters what’s blues and what ain’t. They know more. It was a strange thing Muddy Waters and the other great blues players ended up playing to white people [and] not the people the music was born in and learnt their craft, a vital ingredient to keeping it going.

There is a problem with blues players that they come to a halt when they make that crossover. But, at the same time, they want the crossover because it’s more bread. It’s not that you can’t make a good show to a bunch of white college kids, but at the same time it’s not the reason that the music existed. The reason the music exists is because you couldn’t reach those people in the first place. You played the blues and the chitlin’ circuit because that was all there was. And then suddenly it’s all changed and you’re a big deal but you’re not playing.

You’re not going to knock it. But you don’t get the same type of performance out of those guys as when they were playing when they got their shit together. Suddenly, you become a blues master. Hey, you’re not going to turn down a good paying gig. You struggled all your life playing the chitlin’ circuit. You’re not going to turn down some phenomenal amounts of money to play to 10 to 15,000 people. It doesn’t matter what color they are. But in a way it does. It’s something you have to come to terms with. But you find that you don’t get any powerful new input from them once they’ve gotten into that. They still play brilliantly, and they still do a good show, and everybody goes away happy, but in actual fact, it’s the artist that suffers.

Muddy Waters in the last few years of his life was Mr. Blues. The crown was firmly nailed to the head. He played gigs with us—20,000 people—[and] played all these jazz and blues festivals in Europe, those huge festivals. But at the same time, that’s not the catalyst, it’s not the necessary ingredients that started it all off.

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Transcribed by Merv Keizer
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