Mick and Keith, despite being born in Dartford, Kent, England, were always meant to make their way to Chicago — the home of their heroes.
Friends as children, Jagger would move away. They’d reconnect in 1960 by pure chance, running into each other on a train platform. If Jagger wasn’t carrying a Muddy Waters record, they may never have struck up a conversation about their shared love of the blues. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Eddie Taylor… These were the Chicago bluesmen Jagger and Richards loved — they even cover most of ’em on 2016 Blues and Lonesome. Throw in Chuck Barry and you have the very core of the Rolling Stones’ musical influences.
To be blunt, the Rolling Stones would not exist without Chicago bluesman Muddy Waters. The very name of their band, in fact, was takin’ from the Muddy Waters single Rollin’ Stone.
There’s one finite thread that connects the Stones to their aforementioned heroes: Chess Records.
The legendary record company once located at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue. It’s where Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone” was recorded in 1950. The names above all released records through Chess. And while the Stones did not come from the birthplaces of their heroes, places like Missouri and Mississippi, they still ended up in Chicago just like them.
The Rolling Stones were still figuring out how to be the Rolling Stones when they made their way to Chicago in 1964.
Their setlist in ’64 was still mostly devoid of original songs, which made sense, since it was the blues standards they played that had garnered them a following in London. The band at the time was Mick and Keith along with Brian Jones, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and (unofficially) Ian Stewart.
Together, the five musicians (plus Stewart) would record five songs, releasing the EP Five by Five in August of 1964 — four months after their debut self-titled. Reaching #1 on the UK EP chart, the album sported two original songs and three covers.
“Empty Heart” and “2120 South Michigan Avenue” were the original songs on the record, credited to Nanker Phelge — a pseudonym for songs written by the band. “Empty Heart” isn’t a farcry from the blues-infused rock the Stones loved, heavy with pentatonic guitar riffs and harmonica. “2120 South Michigan Avenue” is a wordless jam that’s got a groovy mod feel.
“If You Need Me” is a cover of a blues ballad made famous by Solomon Burke and written by Wilson Pickett. “Confessin’ the Blues” is a standard, well, blues song in every respect and was made famous by Jay McShann and co-written by Walter Brown.
“Around and Around” was actually the only Chess Records-released cover of the three on Five by Five. The Chuck Berry classic was the B-side to “Johnny B. Goode” and is quintessential rock and roll. The Stones would make this a staple of their live shows throughout the ’60s.
With Five by Five, the Rolling Stones unabashedly wear their influences on their sleeves. Though it doesn’t quite have the glamor of their later, original work, it may be some of their most important work. Five by Five tells the story of six young men coming into their own. It bridges their influences with the future they would go on to create together.
And, for those of us born and raised in the City of the Big Shoulders, it’s a reminder: rock and roll would be nothing without the Chicago blues.