Flip through your iTunes library right now and choose your top ten favorite classic rock songs of all time. Your music library is full of the same iconic rock bands as the rest of civilization — from Zeppelin to Van Halen to the Beatles, Cream and Petty and his heartbreakers. Toss a few of your absolute favorites into a mini-mix for this coming weekend.
Now, grab some ear shakers from current bands. Whatever you’ve got — The Black Keyes, Vampire Weekend, any of the hundred Jack White-fronted bands, Twenty One Pilots, hell pick ANY band in your library. Any band, any album, from any year 1950 until right this very second and the music and sounds can be traced to the city of Chicago. Even if they’ve never been there, played there, strummed a guitar in the city limits or can spell the city correctly, whether they know it or not, every rock band owes a bit of gratitude to the pioneers of the Chicago blues movement.
Even the greatest rock and roll band of all time, and every single one of its members, will attest that Chicago blues were the sole reason they first strummed a guitar or smashed a drum kit.
The instant Keith Richards heard the early blues records being pressed and pumped out of small Chicago labels like Chess Records, he was hooked. The blues are the one high the Rolling Stones guitar god will never come down from.
“I had to stick people up,” Richards told The Guardian in 2009 when discussing his early influences and how blokes in England discovered music made in urban America. “We would borrow records and lend records, and stuff. Some guys had interesting sounds, and you sort of gravitated towards people that had a collection of records. And you try and steal one here and there, or just borrow.”
With those records in hand, Keith, Mick and the Rolling Stones (a band named lifted from a song made famous by Chicago Blues legend Muddy Waters) made a pilgrimage to the United States in 1964 to track down the Chicago blues greats and cut their teeth in the American music scene. The Stones found some success back in their home country but couldn’t get airplay because the group’s blues-influenced sound and throaty frontman sounded “too black” to be on the BBC.
“I was in the studio at Chess Records doing a record called ‘My Time After a While,'” blues legend Buddy Guy told Rolling Stone in a recent interview. “Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon walked straight in my studio with a bunch of white guys. I got pissed off: Who in the hell are these guys? I had never seen a white man with long hair and high-heeled boots before. I found out later, when they got bigger than bubble gum, they were the Rolling Stones, the greatest rock & roll band I’d ever play with.”
In this episode of “Where History Happened”, presented by Jim Beam, the origins and attitudes of the early pioneers of Chicago blues music is on full display. Chicago has long been known as the Blues Capital of the World. It was the breeding ground for some of the biggest and most influential musicians of this, or any, century. Chicago was one city, creating one specific sound, but it inspired millions of kids to pick up an instrument and just play.