Stones Visit Memphis

Tour rolls on through a spirited stop in Memphis before a drug bust sideshow in Texas

August 14, 1975
Billy Preston Mick Jagger Rolling Stones
Billy Preston and Mick Jagger perform onstage in June, 1975.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Memphis — It was 1:00 a.m. on the Fourth of July, the Rolling Stones Tour of the Americas '75 was a month old and the situation was, frankly, chaotic. Earlier, the Stones' jet had left Washington D.C. hours behind schedule and had flown into rough weather; now, several hours later, the security force's karate expert was still vomiting. When at last the queasy passengers stumbled down the steps to terra firma, they heard, bleeding faintly in through the roar of the jet's engines, the bottleneck guitar of Furry Lewis. The 83-year-old Memphis bluesman and ex-medicine-show entertainer was sitting atop two whiskey cases in the glare of limousine headlights, playing and singing "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." Keith Richards, who shaped the Stones' approach to country blues, sat down to listen.

Then it was on to the nearby Hilton Inn, which has a spacious plaza with four tiers of rooms running around its inside walls so an observer situated by the pool or in the lobby can see the door to every room in the place. Keith Richards, wobbling dangerously, played blues licks on a Telecaster from his top tier balcony, while Ron Wood was heard seconding from within the room.

Mick Jagger, who'd been sightseeing near Roanoke, drifted into the lobby with a lady friend. Richards, still dangling high above, salaamed elaborately, called out to "Mister Jagger" and tried to bow from the waist. The Telecaster in the guard rail kept him from completing the gesture. Jagger took in the scene at a glance and quickly disappeared into an elevator. A roadie rolled a practice amp into Richards' room, where he and Wood jammed until dawn.

Four hours later a crowd, which eventually numbered 51,500, began filing into Memphis Memorial Stadium. At 2:00 p.m. the Charlie Daniels Band opened the concert on schedule. Then, around the middle of the afternoon. New Orleans's Meters performed an energetic soul set, but the crowd was only marginally interested. The J. Geils Band fared somewhat better, but not with local musicians. "What made these guys think they could pull off a second-rate black-face act in Memphis?" one wondered.

The crowd was impatient for the Stones, but the Stones asked that Furry Lewis perform — for the kind of money the other musicians were getting. It seemed that Bill Wyman treasures his rare Lewis recordings from the Twenties and that Richards is a fan. And, as a black entertainer whose repertoire predates the beginning of the blues, Lewis represents one of the sources of a Memphis musical tradition which has seen a thriving jug-band and country blues scene, the debuts of Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King, and the birth of rockabilly and soul.

"Hello everybody," Furry told the 51,500. "You know, I was out on the street one day and I was so-o-o hungry. I was walkin' and walkin' and then spied some ladies sittin' on a porch and I said, please gimme somethin' to eat. One of them ladies looked at me and said, 'Come on back in the house an' I'll raise my dress a little while.'" Several thousand people roared as Furry tore into "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," his favorite number of late. He followed it with a blues that included the traditional lines, "Baby, the way you treat me/Make me a rolling stone."

By the time Furry finished, the audience had been waiting for six hours in 90° heat. Finally, at 8:bi40, Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" announced, as usual, that the Stones were ready to begin. Sweating, half-naked bodies pushed toward the fence as Richards hit the chunky introduction to "Honky Tonk Women" and Jagger pranced out in a lavender cape to sing about the ballroom queen he'd met in "Memphayas." Jim Dickinson, the Memphis musician who played piano on "Wild Horses," burst into the press box from backstage, where he'd obviously been having a good time. "Listen to that rhythm section," he crowed. "Now that they've got Ollie Brown to keep time, Charlie doesn't have to, and he's playing. Wyman too. I've heard 'em cook some fast jazz in the studio just warming up, and then they start playing Stones songs and it's back to the gorilla music. But this is great."

The band kicked into "Star Star." Earlier, Memphis police had threatened to arrest them if they sang the song or used their inflatable phallus; after hours of negotiations, their lawyer, Bill Carter, was told they could proceed "at their own risk." The phallus isn't used at outdoor shows anyway, but the band members rose to the occasion by singing the "star fucker" chorus with special relish.

It was evident by this time that the accompanying musicians had been well chosen. Preston's keyboards were tasty, from his boogie piano on the blues numbers to string synthesizer on "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Only his semi improvised introduction to "Gimme Shelter" was distracting. Brown's cowbell and timbales reproduced the special lift the overdubbed percussion tracks hateve always given key Stones songs. His solidity enabled Watts to vary his cymbal sound and introduce cross-rhythms. While Wyman opened up with fast walking patterns and loping, Memphis-style figures, Wood's bottleneck playing was thin and had imperfect sustain. But Woody's lead, lean and functional to begin with, was sliced thinner and thinner by Richards until it became a sharp, stinging essence over Keith's driving power chording.

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