By Gordon Thompson
Fifty years ago, in one of London’s busiest shopping districts, the Rolling Stones stepped onto a stage for the first time, full of adolescent confidence and probably not a little performance anxiety. On this Thursday night, a crowd of friends and the curious came to support this muddle of middle-class English adolescents ambitiously exploring a relatively esoteric niche of American music. But everything about this first gig would portend a band that would be, a band that parents would hate and teens love, a band that would be ruthless in its pursuit of success.
In July 1962, London’s Marquee Club occupied an address in Oxford Street (near Marks and Spencer’s flagship department store) to compete with other London venues catering to jazz aficionados. Fans tended to divide along the lines of the modern and “trad” jazz, but both held a reverence for jazz’s urtext: the blues. Like possessed antiquarians, British collectors sought out the rarest American recordings, actively consumed myths about its practitioners, and emotionally argued the details and the aesthetics of the exotic music emanating from their turntables. Musical conservatives demanded to hear recreations of those recordings, such that when Muddy Waters (with pianist Otis Spann) arrived in Britain in 1958, his electric guitar often remained silent. However, locals Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner liked the “new” electric blues, and initiated special evenings that sometimes featured American artists and sometimes, British enthusiasts.
In March 1962, Davies and Korner began booking nights for a floating collective of like-minded musicians they would call “Blues Incorporated.” Over the following months and years, this scene would also attract a number of prominent musicians in the making, including Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, John Baldry, Graham Bond, Paul Pond (Jones), Charlie Watts, and others, and would prove a prep school for British blues. Buoyed by the growing interest in the music, Davies and Korner arranged a night of blues in suburban Ealing during which the slide-guitar playing of Brian Jones (19 and performing under the alias of Elmo Lewis) duly impressed both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (both 18).
The extended jam sessions in Ealing and London encouraged Jagger, Richards, and Jones to form their own “rhythm and blues group,” which would also include Dick Taylor (who would later go on to join the Pretty Things) on bass, Ian Stewart (who would remain hidden on the Stones’ team for years) on piano, and Mick Avery (who would become a member of the Kinks) on drums. Their opportunity to perform independently of Blues Incorporated arose when an evening opened at the Marquee and Jones lobbied for this band to perform. When asked for the name of the group, Jones characteristically improvised, blurting out the name of Muddy Waters’ signature record, “Rollin’ Stone.”
In anticipation of the Rolling Stones’ first engagement, Jagger tried his hand at media relations. Aware of how Cyril Davies disdained the near sibling of R&B, Jagger told the local Jazz News, “I hope they don’t think we’re a rock ‘n’ roll outfit.” To that end, their set list that night featured covers of standards by Robert Johnson (“I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”), Muddy Waters (“I Want You to Love Me”), and Jay McShann (“Confessin’ the Blues”). But in the middle of their performance, Keith Richards insisted on inserting Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA” to build some up-tempo excitement. The adults in the room knew rock ‘n’ roll when they heard it and the group would not return until September.
At the core of the band, Jagger’s vocals and Keith Richards’ rhythmic guitar generated the sparks, while Brian Jones added an edge of sophisticated unpredictability on guitar and harmonica. Jagger’s ability and interest in using publicity to shape public perceptions of the band would eventually find an ally in Andrew Oldham who would become the band’s manager (and producer) a year later. Together, they would become masters at managing the press, hitting on the idea of portraying themselves as the anti-Beatles, the bad boys of pop music. The blues and rhythm-and-blues repertoire with its celebration of sex, machismo, and intoxication would play neatly into this image and Richards’ interest in a fusion of blues, rhythm-and-blues, and rock ‘n’ roll would prove to be a defining feature of the band’s sound. Three years later, his “Satisfaction” would top the charts. The Jazz News article listed Ian Stewart only as “Stu,” marking him as a demi member of the band who would eventually become their road manager and sometime accompanist, but never a real Stone. Taylor, Avory, Chapman, and others would prove transient solutions while Jagger, Richards, and Jones searched for a suitable drum-and-bass foundation on which to stage their adult-taunting paeans.
Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.