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Stones Visit Memphis

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

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.

The set was the same two-hours-plus the band has been doing throughout the tour, but there were some surprises. Jagger’s voice has gained depth and resonance; a few years ago he wouldn’t have been able to sustain two slow numbers, “Angie” and “Wild Horses,” in a row. He was using the carrying power of his cordless microphone to improvise subtle changes in the vocal lines of several songs, rushing or delaying a phrase here, speaking instead of singing there. All the while he jumped and twirled with the grace of an acrobat. Richards, whose rhythm guitar parts are the backbone of every Stones rocker, had turned virtually all the lead work over to Wood. “Get Off My Cloud,” “Heartbreaker” and a few other tunes had taken on an 8/8 rhythm feel with salsa flavoring. “You Got to Move,” the somber spiritual written by the late Memphis bluesman Fred McDowell, had become a showstopper. Earlier in the tour, the group vocals by Jagger, Richards, Wood, Preston and Brown had been flippant, as if the black musicians weren’t sure how to treat a piece so deeply imbedded in their past, and the Englishmen thought the whole thing a bit silly. In Memphis, Richards twanged out the introduction on his treble strings, giving an all-too-brief sampling of his distinctive, biting tone, and the unison vocals at least approached the compact power of a backwoods church chorus.

The Stones exited after “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and Jimi Hendrix‘s “Star Spangled Banner” came over the PA. Ollie Brown followed it with a reading from political texts selected by Jagger to celebrate the anniversary of American independence. “Revolutions never go backward,” he said, “revolutions must go forward.” (That was from Lenin.) “President Ford has said, ‘For the next hundred years we must pursue liberty and happiness.'” — but, “The rich is getting richer, and the poor is getting poorer.” (The O’Jays‘ “Rich Get Richer.”) Mao’s words were the last: “Is one revolution enough?”

Back at the hotel, Wyman commented that he liked the audience and Furry Lewis, then left with Memphis R&B bassist “Duck” Dunn. Charlie Watts sat down and, asked how he liked playing with Ollie Brown, replied, “Oh, he’s a great player. Great. We used a percussionist from Billy’s band before, on a European tour, but that was more spontaneous. This time we decided to do it right and rehearsed intensively.” Did Ollie free him to experiment more? “I don’t know, I just play.”

But Watts really wanted to talk about jazz. In New York he’d been impressed by avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor, swing-era musicians Roy Eldridge and Paul Quinichette and drummer Roy Haynes. “Every time people tell me I’m good,” he said, “I . . . like it at first — anybody does — but then I think about people like Roy [Haynes], who played with Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and is still playing in clubs. You know, when I started I played Dixieland, and then I went on to bands that were trying to re-create the Johnny Hodges and Duke Ellington small-band sound from the Thirties. I worked up to playing Fifties-period Thelonious Monk. All the time I thought that what I’d eventually be doing, what I wanted to be doing, was playing with a trio in a cellar for a few junkies.” A reporter who’d been looking for an opening blurted, “What do you think of American music?” Watts stared with his huge, liquid eyes and snorted softly, “I don’t know about anything but American music,” he said. “None of us do, really. And what I like about American music is basically black music. That’s not to say white people can’t play it, but to me, American music is black music.”

Keith Richards wandered up. “Woody and me, we’re driving to Dallas,” he stage whispered to Watts. “See the country, get off the plane for a bit. Come on with us.” Watts looked at him incredulously, as if he knew what was coming. “Now? Think I’ll take the plane.” Twelve hours later, 4:00 p.m. Arkansas time, Richards, Wood, security man James Callaghan and one Fred Sessler (“just a fan,” according to Bill Carter; something more, according to rock gossips) were pulled over by city police in Fordyce, pop. 5000.

They’d been driving through the state sightseeing in a rented Chevrolet, determinedly avoiding the interstate, and had stopped at the Fordyce Restaurant and Station for a late lunch around three. Richards had obligingly signed autographs for waitress Wanda Parnell, a senior at Fordyce High. A few minutes after the group resumed its journey, he bent over to change radio stations. The car swerved and the police arrived.

The four were detained at city hall, where a search of their car allegedly turned up a “controlled substance,” thought to be cocaine, in Sessler’s luggage. While several hundred local teenagers waited outside the building, Richards paid $163.50 in bail for two misdemeanor charges — carrying a concealed weapon (a leather-sheathed hunting knife) and reckless driving. Sessler posted $5000 bond and the party left town in a chartered plane. Fordyce Municipal Court Judge T. D. Wynne Jr. was philosophical about the incident. He told Memphis’s Commercial Appeal that Fordyce was “already famous” because Paul W. Bear Bryant, University of Alabama football coach, was from the area, and that the town did not need the kind of publicity a Rolling Stones bust was likely to incur. Arresting officer Eddie Childers, 26, allowed that he had heard the Stones’ music but prefered C&W. “I’ve never had a case like that before,” he said. “But it’s all in the job.”

This is a story from the August 14, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.


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