In November 1981, when the Rolling Stones were touring in support of their enormously successful Tattoo You album (best known for “Start Me Up” and “Waiting on a Friend”), bassist Bill Wyman talked to Rolling Stone magazine about the band’s desire to play small clubs in the midst of its worldwide stadium-rock orgy:
“When we started, we really thought we could do a bunch of clubs,” said Wyman. “Our idea was to just go into a town, go to a club and watch the blues band that was onstage – Muddy Waters or Junior Wells or Buddy Guy or whoever – and then get onstage for twenty minutes. But when we got to Chicago, they told us, ‘You can’t go to the Checkerboard tonight and do that – there are three TV stations there, two radio stations and about a thousand kids.’”
It was fitting that Wyman and the Stones would want to pay homage to Chicago blues greats like Muddy Waters, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. Those were the artists who, some twenty years earlier, first inspired Mick and Keith and Bill and Charlie to pick up their instruments, turn the amplifiers up to ten, and scare the living hell out of parents and record company executives across the United Kingdom.
As a 19 year old college kid who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, reading that Rolling Stone piece in the fall of 1981 made me smile. See, if you were lucky enough to come of age in Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s like I did, you probably knew Muddy Waters and Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. There’s a good chance you also knew Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, and the whole Pantheon of Chicago blues artists without whom, as Muddy Waters once noted, there likely would never have been that thing called rock ’n roll. That’s one of the advantages of Chicago’s notorious provincialism: We promote our own like nobody else.
But how many 1970s kids who grew up outside the Chicago area had even heard of, let alone knew the music of, those great blues stalwarts who essentially invented rock music? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that other than Muddy Waters – whose signal was boosted to a considerable degree by the Stones and other blues-obsessed Englishmen like Eric Clapton, John Mayall, and the original (and now barely known) incarnation of Fleetwood Mac – the rest of those musical giants were essentially unknown to rock music fans outside the Windy City.
I mention this because, over the past few days, old folks have been harrumphing at fans of Kanye West, some of whom, if their tweets are to be believed, are not too familiar with a rock ’n roll legend of my era – Sir Paul McCartney – who collaborated on Kanye’s new song, “Only One”. At E! Online, Brett Malec gasped:
We can only hope some of the “Who Is Paul McCartney?” tweets are jokes. If they aren’t, it’s safe to say we are all doomed.
And the predictably humorless conservative outlet, The Daily Caller, intoned:
We now live in a world where people don’t know who a 21 Grammy award-winning artist is, but can probably tell you Kim Kardashian’s birth date, middle name and social security number.
Apparently, not being familiar with a white artist who reached his apex nearly fifty years ago is some sort of unforgiveable sin. Got it. But it strikes me that if you’re the product of the 1960’s or ’70s and you can’t so much as name a single tune by the likes of, say, Robert Johnson or Willie Dixon, you’ve got no right to grouse about Kanye’s fans today.
Of course, the easy response is to say that artists like Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon are nowhere near as famous as Paul McCartney … but that’s really the whole point. White artists like Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin are deeply indebted to the Black artists who started it all, and yet they – Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley, et al. – are far better known than the people who inspired them. At least the Stones are honest enough to admit that they owe everything to Chicago blues artists – they actually took their name from Muddy Waters’ first single, which was recorded in Chicago at Chess Records in 1948. Led Zeppelin, on the other hand, seemingly had few qualms about infringing on the copyrights of blues artists (and others), and yet the Zeppelin crew are, like the Beatles and Stones, infinitely more famous than the artists they – ahem – rather loosely borrowed from.
And therein lies the real tragedy. We spit nickels at young people who don’t know white rock legends like Paul McCartney, but shrug over the relative anonymity of the artists who started it all – artists whose influence was, in a sense, far greater than the Beatles’ and the Stones’, because without them, there would be no Beatles and Stones.
Look, I’m all for knowing the history of rock ’n roll. I’d go so far as to say that you can’t be culturally literate in the twenty-first century without knowing at least some of it. But as Muddy Waters sang on his 1977 LP, Hard Again, “The blues had a baby and they named it rock ’n roll.” Truer words were never spoken – or sung, as it were – and not knowing that particular history lesson is a much greater sin than not knowing who Paul McCartney is. Unless, of course, you think the history of rock ’n roll only comes in shades of white.