Robert Johnson

Keith Richards — Part I

GUITAR HERO

Keith is my numero uno, the man, the KING OF COOL and HOT TRASHY GUITAR. He was the first guitar hero I had and over the years I’ve learned many a lick and trick from listening to his music, reading his interviews and copping the feel from his playing. Long before Django, or Eddie or Jimi or anyone else I was a huge fan of The Rolling Stones and their music. Not only is Keith’s style great, but because he always mentioned great players from the past that were influences, he provided a link to the past that made for even more listening entertainment and inspiration. The Stones, from the very beginning, always picked great cover songs too — Love in Vain, Mona, Let it Rock, Prodigal Song, Shake Your Hips, Down the Road Apiece, Stop Breaking Down, Not Fade Away and many others always done with the energy and panache that is THE STONES.

There have been many great books on Keith and The Rolling Stones over the years and probably anyone reading this has had at least a few in their possession. The pictures you see in this post come from The Rolling Stones: The First 25 Years, by rock writer extraordinaire Dave Dalton. I’ve had this for so long it’s not even a book anymore. It completely fell apart years ago and is basically just a big pile of pages, but it’s a an AWESOME BOOK. Not only is the photography really brilliant, but it spans the real pinnacle of the band’s career and includes many interviews with Keith and Mick from the 1970s. This is is how I knew all about Keith’s guitar style before I even left home. I was surprised to see this book is still available and if you like Keith and the band, you should totally buy it.

BLUES ATTITUDE

From the early days The Stones were different from all of the other people who banded together to play rock and roll music. They grew to be notorious for their attitude and behavior and although they were eclipsed by The Beatles in the 1960s and Led Zeppelin in the 1970s, at least as far as popularity and sales, they became the epitome of what a rock and roll band is, or should be. Not only was their music top-notch, but they had the attitude (in spades) to match. The emotions and the attitudes expressed in songs like Satisfaction and Let’s Spend the Night Together (which was too risqué for The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967) seem quaint when compared to some of the jokes in an present-day episode of Family Guy. But that was the uptight culture that was America in the post-WW II years. Many of the overly conservative/fundamentalist leanings rampant today have been a part of this country all along. Whether he was in court on drug charges, staring down the Hells Angels at Altamont or being flogged in the press as a musical hack, Keith was never one to shy away from conflict. He has the BLUES ATTITUDE, a style and way of life I’ve already talked about in the Bukka White post I wrote last year. Along with the outlaw country styles of Jimmie Rodgers and Johnny Cash and the rock and roll snarl of Elvis and Chuck Berry was all about IMPULSE and ABANDON, not only in the music, but also the lifestyle associated with it. Keith Richards came to embody all of this and even today is held up as THE symbol of hedonistic living, a shining example of those people who burn the candle at both ends and then snort the wax. In uptight conservative society, which is really what the upper class wants to inflict on the lower classes because the upper class perfected hedonistic behavior a long time ago, people like Keith were a threat to the status quo that had kept everyone in line. As the 60s progressed, more and more of the old ways fell away. Of course, Keith doesn’t get all the credit for these changes, but he was and is a person who declared, through his razor slash chords and his defiance of traditional mores, that he was a man who lives on his own terms, like it or not.

EARLY DAYS

In the beginning Keith and the Stones played the music of their heroes, the music they loved. It was rude, energetic, infused with sex and danger and the freedom to let it rock. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts were a great rhythm section, Mick Jagger was well on his way to being a superstar frontman and Brian Jones and Keith Richards had practiced their dueling blues, rhythm and blues and rock and roll “weaving guitar” parts until they had them down cold. They had digested Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, Scotty Moore, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and were able to play it with a reckless enthusiasm that drove the kids wild. It was all about MOVING people, as the following clip from The Tami Show proves. The Stones are having a really good time and everything the band becomes is right here in this clip. It’s a tad derivative still — Showtime at The Apollo, James Brown or Otis Day and the Knights maybe. They weren’t really writing their own material yet. But Keith fires the whole band with his timing, feel and exuberance. He’s also really good at those short, stingin’ leads. ROCK AND ROLL BABY!

By 1965, with the release of the singles The Last Time and Satisfaction and the Aftermath album, the band really came into their own with original material and almost all of it was built on Keith’s style and sensibilities. He was and is a complete genius at adapting to whatever the situation required. Very early on, in one of their first forays into the recording studio, the question was asked, “who makes the records?” and Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham pointed to Keith and said, “he does.” While part of the reason was Keith’s personality, it was also because he knew how to create a good track and capture the atmosphere necessary to make it more than a great track, especially once the concept of albums came into vogue. Only Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page equaled Keith’s ability to make albums that had not only the sound, but also the ambiance and atmosphere of blues and early rock and roll. Many critics have said that about the Exile on Main Street album, but it was true of other records as well, Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers especially. He was and is the KING of lo-fi, slop guitar and with Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones and later, Mick Taylor and Ronnie Wood, he had a lot of help making genre-defining records.

POP STARDOM

In the first phase of their career, the band was constantly being pressured for a single because that was the format du jour at the time. This was true of every band and every project through the late 60s. Many groups, even heavier ones like Cream and The Yardbirds were at the mercy of producers, record companies and managers who didn’t really understand this new rock phenomenon and insisted on doing business the old way. (HERE is a funny interview with Keith Relf, singer for The Yardbirds on the trials and tribulations of dealing with this aspect of pop stardom). Because The Beatles were the undisputed rulers of the pop charts throughout the decade, there was a lot of pressure on bands to follow their lead. Some of this yielded positive results for Keith and The Stones, others were pretty dismal (Their Satanic Majesties Request). Many of the Stones’ early original singles — The Last Time, Satisfaction, Get Off Of My Cloud and 19th Nervous Breakdown were very Rn’B-influenced and contained all of the best riffs and tricks to be mined from listening to all of the influences I’ve already mentioned. However, in 1965 they started to expand on this with other songs like Paint It, Black, Under My Thumb, Lady Jane, Ruby Tuesday, and Mother’s Little Helper. They were able to do this because Keith and Mick were becoming great song writers and Brian Jones was a complete genius at picking up exotic instruments and mastering them them well enough to play on a track or live in a very short time. Even though Keith would, in time, become the best example of the outlaw rock and roller, he, like the others was always very pop-conscious. His guitar hooks usually brilliant and he knew how to ARRANGE a song for the singles format. It was Keith’s idea to use a fuzzbox on Satisfaction to give the guitar a horn-like sound and there weren’t a whole lot of people using fuzz boxes at the time. (It was supposed to be a “guide” track for real horns, but it was released as is). In addition to his electric guitar finesse, Keith was a very good acoustic picker, featured on songs like Lady Jane or Back Street Girl. While some of this material seems a bit off the wall compared to later, there are some real gems in the mid-60s Stones catalog that capture the whole period of 1960s “Swinging London”.

PHASE II

The mid-60s was a really great period for Brian Jones, but, unfortunately it was also the beginning of his decline. He really came into his own as the COLOR guy for the band because he played everything; sitar, mellotron, recorder, harmonica, marimbas, organ, harpsichord, saxophone, accordion, autoharp, and dulcimer. Songs they did during this period, which are still very popular, would have been impossible without him. He was comparable to The Beatles having George Martin involved on their records. According to Keith, Brian didn’t enjoy playing guitar very much after 1965 and while there were certainly other issues within the band, it’s easy to believe that he would’ve been bored being the rhythm guitar player given his multi-instrumental abilities. Hounded by the drug squads and marginalized within the band because of his physical and mental condition, he would become the 1960s first “death by misadventure” casualty.

1968, the year of Jumping Jack Flash and Beggars Banquet, was often heralded by critics as the band’s return to their roots, but it was actually much more than that. In the past they had played American music, but post ’68 they set out to completely reinvent American music and culture, at least as they saw it. It was art in it’s truest sense and while Mick Jagger’s lyrics had a lot to do with the panorama they created, this whole period was Keith Richards coming into his own as a complete (understated) guitar master. He began exploring the concept of open-tunings, used by the blues masters of the past: Skip James, Robert Johson, Bukka White, Son House and Muddy Waters. Combined with his love of acoustic guitars, brilliant song sense and endless supply of memorable riffs and driving rhythms, he created a body of work from ’68 to ’72 that is the Stones pinnacle. Every one of the albums from this period rates five stars or… it should. Charlie Watts has said (I’m paraphrasing) that “every band in the world follows the drummer except The Rolling Stones. We follow the rhythm guitar player.” A very crucial ingredient to why these records were so great was how well Keith and Charlie play together. Keith’s riffs, combined with Charlie’s unique approach to “rock” drumming creates a very powerful, hip shaking statement. This was the beginning of the band’s ascent to superstardom.

OPEN TUNINGS

I learned all of the open-tunings a long time ago precisely because Keith used them. The original version of Jumping Jack Flash (with it’s flip side Child of the Moon) was done in open E/D. Tune the guitar to a major chord E-B-E-G#-B-E (down 2 steps for open-D, which is less stress on the guitar, especially acoustics). Beggars Banquet was the first album done with Keith using these tunings although Brian had used this tuning for slide guitar in the past. Street Fighting Man, Prodigal Sun, Salt of the Earth, No Expectations, Jigsaw Puzzle and Stray Cat Blues are all definitely in open tunings. Another element that makes this album interesting is that some of the songs were cut with the band gathered around a Phillips cassette recorder which was then put through a speaker and recorded. Sort of like having an overdrive in the chain. Says Keith: “The basic track of that was done on a mono cassette with very distorted overrecording, on a Phillips with no limiters. Brian is playing sitar, it twangs away. He’s holding notes that wouldn’t come through if you had a board, you wouldn’t be able to fit it in. But on a cassette if you just move the people, it does. Cut in the studio and then put on a tape. Started putting percussion and bass on it. That was really an electronic track, up in the realms.” Brilliant lo-fi stuff isn’t it? That track still sounds great and the whole album is just drowning in atmosphere. Here’s the original when the song was still Did Everyone Pay Their Dues?

Here’s my version of Stray Cat Blues…I just did the music for a friend’s project that profiles a woman who takes care of stray and feral cats (at her own expense) in Mexico. I decided to use the Keith approach to the music and I ended up with something not too bad considering I haven’t played slide guitar in 5 years and was never much of a harmonica player. I also used the old Johnny Cash trick of slipping a piece of paper through the strings to create a nice rhythmic “chuck” for the background. The track had to be edited down for the length of the movie, but this is why I love GARAGEBAND.

In THIS post, I do some playing around with open-tunings on an acoustic, including Prodigal Son and You Gotta Move. They are close to what Keith does except “Move” is tuned down to a “C” tuning. I’m playing it in “D”. Keith Part II coming later in the year!

Booker (Bukka) White and The Blues — Part 1

I‘ve always been a fan of the blues and I mean the real razor in the shoe-down home neon blues, not most of the stuff that passes for blues these days. My all-time favorite acoustic blues player is  Booker “Bukka” White. He was a giant of a man; son of a railroad worker, boxer, baseball player, prisoner, blues genius. He was a giant and I mean a real giant not only as a musician, but also as man, a sonic philosopher and bona-fide American Shaman of the twentieth century. And…he was BB King’s cousin and helped teach the young BB how to play!! He emerged from a society that was marginalized not only by the majority white segment of the population, but also from some within his own community. Many proper church-going folks did not listen to the blues, especially the gritty, greasy, down-home flavored blues thrown down by Booker. He sang and played profane songs full of temptation and need, murder and greed, prison and trains, desperation, isolation, loneliness, and the danger and excitement of being full of White Lightning and in the wrong house at the wrong time. He was a man on the outside and a man on the move from an early age, living the life that became his music.

Booker White-Shake 'em on DownThere is very little showbiz in this kind of blues; it is art from the mud, saloons, juke joints, street people, hustlers and fast women. Though he recorded some early “spiritual” sides with Memphis Minnie on background vocals Booker was more about living and singing in the “right now,” leaving the glory of the hereafter to the others. Many of his best songs have a very conversational feel about them. They describe ordinary situations and feelings that carry powerful statements; When Can I Change My Clothes seems like a very mundane topic unless you realize he is in jail, on Parchman Farm in Mississippi; one of the toughest prisons in 1930s America. His plaintive holler and wail, the timbre of his voice, and cross-tuned E minor National guitar cast a very harrowing portrait on most everything he did, especially his 1937 and 1940 recordings that bracketed his arrest and prison sentence for shooting a man. He was able to embody that “devil at the crossroads in the middle of the night” terror better than anyone except for maybe Robert Johnson and Skip James, and like Robert Johnson, an aura of mystery surrounds him, especially the real story behind Booker’s arrest, conviction and release only two years later. He was initially sentenced to life for shooting an assailant in the thigh (just where he wanted to shoot him!) in a bar brawl, but research has turned up differing theories and no documents that explain why he was released after serving only two years or who the victim was or where the crime took place. It’s almost like the Kennedy Assassination! What this does illustrate though is that playing the blues in the old days was a very dangerous business and to survive one had to be as quick with his or her fists, wits, or weapons as one was with the instrument.

Booker, who didn’t like being called “Bukka” —  the name originated from a white record producer who had never heard of Booker T. Washington — was a heckuva guitar player. Here he is doing the Eddie Van Halen slap-mute move that would turn up on the song Mean Street many years later. Okay, not really. I don’t want to stretch my whole connections theory too far, but if you expand this technique a little bit, and put it through 3 amp heads and 6 cabinets, it’s basically what Van Halen is doing too. Aberdeen Mississippi Blues is one of my favorite Booker songs. The recording, from early 1940 is pretty soft and tender, as he is singing about two pretty little ladies from New Orleans, but he rocks it out here. Listen to the sound of that National guitar! Loud!

What always struck me about Booker’s records was the SOUND.  I wonder if his original records were done like Robert Johnson’s? Here is an interesting article on how Robert Johnson was recorded. Many acoustic, solo, and blues guitar players have heard about corner-loading I’m sure. But for those unfamiliar with it — the idea is to face the player/singer into the corner to roll off the highs and lows and pump up the middle frequencies. Heavily picked acoustic instruments, slide guitar (and possibly the vocals) sound more powerful and resonant when recorded this way, at least in theory. The diagram on the above linked site illustrates how the player set-up is something anyone can try in their own studio or apartment to see if it makes any difference. While Robert Johnson certainly laid down some brilliant playing and influenced pretty much every guitar player after him, I find his recordings tinny when compared with Booker White. Part of it, I’m sure is that Booker’s voice had a deeper timber (even in the high wail) and more resonance to it. The fact that he was a big and obviously strong player might have increased the powerful sound and resonance on his guitar work too, but it would be interesting to know how his records were done. All recordings in those days were pretty much “what you hear is what you get,” but producers, engineers, and even players themselves found little tricks to enhance the sound they were going for. Here is another song from the same film session as above. Booker lays the guitar across his lap and is using a thin piece of iron or metal, going for more of a lap steel sound. Booker is looking pretty advanced in years in these clips and he was man of modest means. No money for the rack-mount delay and crossover switches but it’s all very real and musical. I think this song has gone by different names over the years depending on the release or repackage, but here the title is Poor Boy Long Way From Home.

Some of my other favorite Booker songs are Special Streamline, Fixin’ To Die Blues, District Attorney, Sic em Dogs on Me, Parchman Farm, Strange Place Blues, Black Train Blues, When Can I Change My Clothes and, Pinebluff, Arkansas. The lyrics from all of these songs are as brilliant as his guitar playing and vocal delivery. He elevates simple thoughts and obvious personal situations to complex high art.

Gonna get up in the morning, baby with the rising sun…Gonna get up in the morning, baby with the rising sun…If the train don’t run, gonna be some walking done

Then, of course, there is Shake ’em on Down. A brilliant song made even more brilliant by Robert Plant who used in repeatedly throughout Led Zeppelin’s career.

Here is a recording a Booker doing Shake ’em on Down and here is a recording of Led Zeppelin’s Hats Off to Roy Harper. Robert Plant got a lot of mileage out this song he liked and a man he must have admired quite a bit. I think there are at least 4-5 LZ songs with some fragment of “shake ’em on down” contained within. Some people regard this as theft and some regard it as parody, but I believe Plant (and Page) genuinely love this stuff and used this as a template for where they would take their music. Certainly on “Hats Off…” Page and Plant are using a combination of technology and no-technology to accentuate and exaggerate the effects of the sounds coming off Shake ’em on Down. This is certainly how all the blues players like Booker learned to play, perform and record. Shake em on Down was a hit for Booker, selling 16,000 copies, but Big Bill Broonzy recorded a New Shake em On Down soon after and had a hit of his own while Booker was at Parchman farm. This is also certainly what the Rolling Stones, the Heartbreakers and a million punk bands have done with Chuck Berry. Is that theft? Parody? I don’t know. Nobody cares until it sells.

Booker "Bukka" WhiteWhile the blues players of yesteryear certainly regarded themselves as guitar heroes, they were more concerned with entertaining the Saturday Night Juke Joint crowd because that’s where the money was. Guitar Player magazine didn’t exist then and like guitar players today, some were very protective of their technique and the various tricks they employed (Robert Johnson) and others were very open and even generous about sharing what they knew. Because many acoustic players performed solo or with a washboard player or another guitar, this resulted in a more focused and stripped-down playing approach, as opposed to the vehicle for soloing the blues became later. The SONG was the thing, because there were limitations on what they could pull off without compromising the rhythm and beat of the music, which was and is always more important than the guitar lead. A man by the name of Washboard Sam was present at Booker’s 1940 sessions and you can hear another guitar on some of his other tunes. Things changed for the blues as time went on, but there were those who kept it and keep it with the original vibe early players like Booker White had back in the day. Look for Part 2 soon!