The Rolling Stones – Back To Blues Roots
The Stones record a new blues-based album in London and subsequently Chuck Leavell adds piano parts in the US. Our man talks to Chuck about the Stones, the new blues set release, song selections and more
JLTT: I believe British Grove Studios were used and that it’s owned by Mark Knopfler…did he drop by? I just saw him at Bill’s 80th Birthday show, playing a Danelectro at one point
I honestly don’t know if Mark came, Pete as all of my playing that you hear on the cuts was done as overdubs in the studio in New Orleans with Don Was. Just the two of us. But I know that Eric Clapton dropped by as he is on two of the tracks, playing great.
Was the record really done in two or three days?
I think the original tracks were done in three…maybe four. All of my overdubs were done in one day at The Parlour Studio out in New Orleans. A great studio…and on an upright piano, not a grand…to make the sound more authentic, as all the track sounds are. That is one great thing about the record…the sounds certainly match the songs and the era in which they were originally done.
I have to ask this, Chuck! Did the ghost of Ian Stewart visit you at any point? I know you were mates and you sometimes stayed at his…
(Laughs) Well, during my overdubs I often thought to myself…WWSP…what would Stu play? Diamond tiaras, of course. That’s what he used to call the “high tinkly bits” in the upper register of the piano. The guys used some open tunings on the guitars, part of the reason why to my ears it sounds just so authentic
Ian put you forward to the Stones, didn’t he?
As a matter of fact, I think it was indeed Stewart who was responsible for me getting that position. When the phone rang it was someone from Bill Graham’s office. I was friends with Bill Graham because of the Allman Brothers Band. Anyway, when I called back it was Ian Stewart who I spoke to first. We had a friendly phone conversation. And then he picked me up for the audition and we just hit it off immediately. I looked at Stew as a big brother. It was actually Stew who turned me on, I was a bit familiar with the boogie woogie guys but Stew was so into it. So he turned me onto Mead Luxe and Albert Ammons and Montana Taylor and all this. For instance, when we were in London Stew would say ‘You’re not staying in hotel, you’re staying with me. I’ve got two nice pianos and a large record collection.’ We’d hang out for several days at his place. Just listen to his records and I learnt so much from him. He really helped my left hand immensely.
Mick Jagger is a distinctive harp player – can he be persuaded to pay more harp on stage? Indeed might future live shows draw on this album?
Keith loves it when Mick plays harp…we all do. And certainly if some of these songs work their way into live sets, he’ll be blowing on them. That is something we’d all like to happen!
Re Muddy Waters,I was lucky enough to see him with Otis Spann first time around…did you see Otis perform?
No, but certainly studied him throughout my career. I did Boots and Shoes back on my Back To The Woods record which you and discussed of course, a tribute to blues piano players.
The second time I think the pianist with Muddy was PineTop Perkins and if I recall you rated him?
(Warmly) I got to meet Pinetop in Austin, Texas when the Stones played Zilker Park there a few years back. He was a sweet guy and it was a thrill to be in his presence. We traded licks a bit backstage, a real gentleman as I’m sure you found, too
Eric Clapton was aboard for a couple of songs – if memory serves you have played with Clapton many times before but please fill me in…
Oh yes, Eric was a special guest on several shows on the Steel Wheels tour. They set him up right next to me on stage, and we played Little Red Rooster. We had a nice “musical conversation” on stage…and when I got back from the tour, there was a message on my answering machine from him asking me if I could play some shows at the Royal Albert Hall. That was 1991, and I joined in and played with Eric through ’93. I did three records with him, 24 Nights, Rush (Movie Soundtrack) and Unplugged. In fact the latter still remains his best selling record ever. We also did George Harrison’s Live In Japan.
From what I have heard, the Stones have as one would expect total respect for this material, Chess era and so on. Might a Memphis or New Orleans project be a possibility at some point?
That would be up to them – suggest it when you next see Ronnie! But I will likely do a follow-up at some point on my Back To The Woods record…to give at least one or possibly more blues piano recordings. As you’ll recall, Keith guested on the last one, on the acoustic guitar and gave it what you called the porch sound!
Whilst we’re talking, any favourite cuts on the Rolling Stones Havana live release? As I mentioned to you at the time, the piano was really clear on the Stones Sky News footage here when they covered the occasion…
It’s difficult to say as I have yet to hear the full soundtrack…but I can tell you that it was a very special gig…certainly one for the books!
Do you have a favourite Rolling Stones ‘own’ song, Chuck?
A favourite song? Oh Pete, that’s such a hard question to answer. God almighty they’ve got so many great ones. And being sort of a semi-archivist of the band, by the way when we rehearse with the band I keep track of these things and I have these two enormous notebooks with notes from every rehearsal we’ve ever done. And so, I get really attached to these songs. I don’t know. I love Honky Tonk Women I would pull that one out. I remember where I was when I first heard that song. I was living in Nashville, I was in one of my first bands. One of the first opportunities I got to record and that was an exciting time. The guitar player in the band ran into the house one day and said ‘I’ve got it! I’ve got it! Here it is!’ You’ve got what? ‘I got the new Stones single I was driving down the road and I heard it on the radio I pulled over and listened to it. I went straight to the record store and they had it. Here it is! ‘ And so of course it was a 45, and we put that thing on and listened to it all day. It’s just a simple thing but it’s got such a charm to it. That one sticks out to me. ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ ,we do that one some nights
The one I like is ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ but they never seem to do it…
Well you know I brought that up several times. But I guess it’s just one for whatever reason just feels like we haven’t been able to nail it. Make it stage worthy I guess. A lot of those early tracks 19th Nervous Breakdown ..what’s the one with the big intro…?
Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing In The Shadows?… That’s exactly the one I was thinking of!
The session photos show Jagger playing a Strat, Ronnie a Telecaster and Keef a Tele and Gibson, Charlie upright behind his kit..all getting down to business. It’s a record they could arguably have made at any time in the last fifty years. But doing it now seems so very right and timely. This year alone the world has lost so many fine artists. It’s not that long since The Stones were quietly funding Hubert Sumlin’s funeral costs. Respect here takes not a solemn form but a lively, sparky session that might just steer a few young fans on to some stellar names…
-Just Your Fool
Jagger’s harp roars into this stomping cut and we are off, the guitars hitting on the changes like a vintage Chess session indeed and with that rolling piano in the mix. A great start to this set.
CL: A Buddy Johnson tune, made popular by Little Walter. Mick does great vocals and blows some strong harp. The piano comes in on the second verse
-Commit A Crime
It’s one of those riffs like Wang Dang Doodle that it is very harp to wrap up! Listeners may know the Wolf original which was a kind of update by Chester of a 1958 number called I’m Leaving You and also the live Stevie Ray Vaughan version. Just listen to Charlie smashing those cymbals as Mick’s harp puffs through the song..
Hearing Howlin’ Wolf roar this out in a small club in Tolworth told me everything about the power of the blues..and as you know I have put together a few tribute shows to this man
CL: A blues giant, for sure. The bits I did were taken out of the final mix. But it’s a nice repetitive riff
-Blue and Lonesome
A powerful punchy intro and then the doomy vocal delivery which reminds me of the great Otis Rush. I did see Rush at the Dominion in London in the 70s and he did none of the numbers we knew him for e.g. Double Trouble, So many Roads. Jagger’s impassioned harp playing here is a highlight of the album. Little Walter tune with Chuck on Hammond
CL: Keith suggested this one..nice slow blues and a cool tip to Little Walter. Clapton plays some strong guitar. No keys
-All Of Your Love
Magic Sam song sung at a laid-back pace with a mesh of guitars ringing over the mean riff with classic upright piano. Mick sounds spirited and again there is a lovely harp break.
CL: Close again in style to Otis Rush…they gave me a nice short piano solo, here
-I Gotta Go
A count-in and one of the fastest tracks is in motion, harp-led. Jagger sounds fresh as a daisy over the churning, chugging guitars. You do why Mick never put out his album with The Red Devils, which to this day sounds terrific, on my copy.
CL: Another Little Walter. Mick again blows nice harp and does a great vocal. Again they left my keys off
-Everybody Knows About My Good Thing
Authentic electric slide guitar from Clapton who was recording next door and invited in. Jagger puts the vocal over like a story as only he and Bobby Bland can do. The piano on this sounds fantastic.
PS : Little Johnny Taylor!
CL: Yes…but Z Z Hill did an equally popular version. I got to do the ol’ eighth note chord pattern on the intro, then loosen up with some blues piano licks and then go back to the eighth pattern on the guitar solo
-Ride ‘Em On Down
Eddie Taylor song from late 1955. A stomping pace here and a springheeled Mick gleefully singing the song as if it was just written. The electric guitars dance along against the snare. Sure sounds like Keef at @ 1:30
CL: Fun shuffle. Keys are a bit buried in the mix and the Hammond here is Matt Clifford
-Hate To See You Go
A Little Walter thumper with an overtone in these hands of John Lee Hooker. Again such a great harp sound! If you like songs like Mellow Down Easy, this is your bag.
PS: Ghost of JLH on this recording, eh?
CL: Great Repetitive riff, though no keys. Nice Mick vocal and harp here, don’t you think?
-Hoo Doo Blues
A late Fifties single on Excello from Lightning Slim, a co-write by Otis Hicks and Jerry West. Pounding beat and nagging guitars, verse kicks in on the four. The similarly titled track Hoodoo Man Blues from the truly seminal Delmark album cut by harp maestro Junior Wells and guitar star Buddy Guy, playing though an organ speaker due to studio gear problems was sometimes performed by Ronnie’s late brother Art at his Eel Pie Club sessions. Ronnie often sat in
PS: As a quick aside, I have discussed the Hoodoo Man Blues album with Buddy Guy. He cannot believe it influenced so many young musicians. I said ‘Buddy, it’s The Bible for guitar and harp interplay’ and he just says ‘ Pete – you are TOO kind..
’ CL: That’s Buddy. Nice slow blues
1957 Jimmy Reed song which you don’t often hear compared to Big Boss Man etc. Some Hammond from Matt over the hypnotic and weaving guitar figures. Maybe the best vocal here, it’s a fine shot at the song, brush drumming at al. High register harp ices the cake.
CL: Acoustic keys left off. Deep groove, great guitar sounds and on the vocal and harp, too
-Just Like I Treat You
The other side of Wolf’s I Ain’t Superstitious single in the US. This version bursts with life with authentic Chess Studios reverb and fancy guitar figures in the mix and ‘Big Eyes’ style drumming
CL: Fun uptempo “jump” groove, and while they took some piano out, it does come through nicely in places
-I Can’t Quit You Baby
Willie Dixon tune. And Otis Rush’s only hit single. There have been many versions of this song and here the tempo is steady and mean. Eric is given space to do his thing. Jagger is a tad OTT in his singing here for whatever reason, but no matter he has played and sung so well throughout the collection he deserves every plaudit. PS: SO makes me think of Johnny Winter, this song…
CL: Ah! Clapton does his thing. Piano shines through in spots, and I really enjoyed playing that one.
Ronnie Wood comments on the recordings: “They sound so authentic it’s frightening. We didn’t spend any time rehearsing them or anything. We just picked a song that suited Mick’s harmonica or a guitar riff… and they worked out pretty good. ‘It was like, ‘this is what the Stones do, we play blues.’” British Grove Studios are in Chiswick, West London, just a couple of miles from Ealing, Richmond, and Eel Pie Island, where the band built their reputation in the 1960s. The album in effect tips its hat to the blues versions they enjoyed playing before canny manager Andrew Loog Oldham locked Mick Jagger and Richards in a room and instructed them to come up with some original material. Among the tracks on the new album are Little Walter’s Just Your Fool, Everybody Knows About My Good Thing by Little Johnny Taylor and I Can’t Quit You, originally written by Willie Dixon and made famous by Otis Rush.”This album is manifest testament to the purity of their love for making music, and the blues is, for the Stones, the fountainhead of everything they do,” opines Don Was, who co-produced the new recordings.
“ It was just like the Stones in the early days when you used to hear them do I’m A King Bee and Walking The Dog. It was a complete accident that it happened. It was just on the spur of the moment, very spontaneous. We suddenly had an album in two days which it’s a real kick up the pants for you, it’s great.”
(Many thanks to Chuck and LD Communications)