No band did more to popularize the blues in America than the Rolling Stones. The group’s playbook in its early days relied heavily on Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Robert Johnson and many other seminal artists who were virtually unknown outside the African-American community. The Stones still regularly call up a blues or two onstage, and Keith Richards, keeper of the flame, is the main reason why. To begin this conversation with Richards about the blues, I ask a question derived from the great Little Brother Montgomery song made famous by Buddy Guy, “First Time I Met the Blues.”
So when was the first time you met the blues?
I guess it goes back to Mother. My mother used to like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, so I grew up listening to jazz – and the odd blues thrown in, because obviously they’re all connected. In a way, Mom ran a kind of boogie household [laughs]. Little did she know.
How did you first hear the Chicago bluesmen?
I was twelve or thirteen when rock & roll first hit England. I was like, “Oh, man, that stuff’s incredible.” The next question is, “Where the hell did they get that from?” And it’s not a long jump from Little Richard and Chuck Berry to Muddy Waters. Also, getting expelled from school was great [laughs]. Luckily I got thrown into art school, and on that scene there was a lot of folk music, jazz and, naturally, blues. And just at that time, once or twice a year, guys would come over and play. It was like, “Sonny Terry’s playing – let’s go,” and you’d go anywhere to see them, hundreds of miles. I saw Muddy play in Manchester in ’62 or ’63.
I started off playing in the suburbs of London and actually ended up playing in Chess Records’ studios. I’ve played with Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon. To me, as a player, it’s like you’re already dead and gone to heaven! I mean, now what? Heaven better be really good, man, after that.
Within a week of the Stones’ arriving in the U.S. for the first time, in 1964, you went to the Chess studios, in Chicago.
Oh, we took no time at all. We zoomed through New York – and the Ronettes, bless their hearts – and the next stop was Chicago. We went to Chess, and they were showing us around the joint: “Oh, you might like to meet this gentleman. This is Muddy Waters.” Muddy was standing on top of a stepladder, whitewashing the ceiling. So my first eye to eye with Muddy was him with white paint dripping down his great, beaming, beautiful black face. I’m going, “Oh, shit.” What an image: Muddy Waters with whitewash all over him.
He then proceeds to be, as usual, one of the greatest gentlemen in the world. For once in my life, I was dumbfounded. So, to answer your first question, Where did I meet the blues? In the middle of a corridor at 2120 South Michigan Ave., and his name was Muddy Waters.
What was Howlin’ Wolf like?
Wolf? Always a gent to me. Although if you asked Muddy, you’d get another story.
And Willie Dixon?
Willie – the supreme gent. Being a bass player, songwriter and producer, he was more behind the scenes. I mean, you’d think it would have taken ten guys to do what he did. Willie, rest in my heart peacefully, man. The thing is, the guys I’m talking about are not only great players, they weren’t assholes. I’d like to stress that. These guys were gentlemen, which is not necessarily what you’d expect from blues players who’ve been knocked around a long time. They could teach us all a fucking lesson in manners.
Talk about some of your contemporaries – like Eric Clapton or maybe someone more obscure, like Roy Buchanan.
Roy Buchanan – it’s very funny. Eric and Ronnie [Wood] and I pissed in his beer once [laughs]. It’s the only time we ever got that mean with anybody. It was an Atlantic recording session in the Seventies. I said, “Go ahead, Eric, get your cock out. We’ll be pissing in that fucker’s beer. He’s being too pushy.” Eric will deny it, of course, but don’t worry about that. I’ve got Ronnie Wood to back me up.
Unbelievable. What about Eric Clapton as a player?
As good as he is, he could be a lot better. Eric’s nervous. And he’s a lazy son of a bitch – you can tell him I said so. Eric, there it is, ’98 style.
I have to tell you that the Stones are where I first met the blues. Your first album is where I discovered Muddy Waters and Slim Harpo.
Well, that was all we wanted. Our aim, like blazing white missionaries, was to go out and say, “If you like us, listen to these guys.” Why the keening sounds from Mississippi should strike notes of thrill and terror and wonder in hearts in the suburbs of London, I don’t know. It can only be because it goes beyond color, blood – it goes to the bone. Maybe that’s it. If you look closely at the marrow, there’s a little bit of blue in there.
This story is from the May 28, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.