To simply call Chess Records “legendary” would be a gross understatement. Founded in Chicago in 1950, it was the label home to many notable artists, such as Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Etta James, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters, just to name a few. The label and its in-house studio have been referred to as “hallowed ground” for the impact that their recordings have had on American music ever since the label’s inception.
And if the impact of Chess Records on music history is itself incalculable, it’s similarly extensive and deeply entrenched for the Rolling Stones. Since so many of their early idols and influences recorded there, it’s not hard to imagine that Mick Jagger and the guys might’ve been just a tad bit starstruck meeting some of their legends on a visit to the studio in the mid-1960s.
But what they likely didn’t plan for was that upon walking into the iconic Chess Studios building for the very first time, they’d see the great blues legend Muddy Waters, in the flesh, on a ladder painting the ceiling — at least according to Keith Richards:
“We walked into Chess Studios and there’s this guy in black overalls painting the ceiling. And it’s Muddy Waters and he’s got whitewash streaming down his face and he’s on top of a ladder.”
Okay, let’s back that up a sec. How did this happen?
During their first stateside tour, the Rolling Stones took a two-day break to record some songs in Chicago as a follow-up to their debut album — some of which would be released later as the Five By Five EP (or “5×5″ for short) on August 14, 1964 (55 years ago today!). The prolific recording session ended up with fourteen songs in total, including one that didn’t make it onto the EP, but did eventually become a number one hit: “It’s All Over Now.”
Anyway, the timing couldn’t have been better. According to some music historians, the tour wasn’t going as well as the band had hoped. Although they were greeted with open arms by fans — many seeing them as the next Beatles in the British Invasion — they received an icy reception in other quarters.
For instance, their performance on Dean Martin’s TV show Hollywood Palace was a bit of a bust — Dean cracked jokes and rolled his eyes at their expense, snarking that the guys had been “picking fleas off each other” backstage. By the time it ultimately aired, their entire appearance had been edited down to a segment of just about a minute.
But the tour had become worth all of the trials and tribulations the moment they set foot into Chess Studios to lay down some tracks. And yes, rumour has it that one of the first things they saw was Waters painting the ceilings… Which brings us to the obvious questions: Did that really happen, and if yes, why?!
According to some sources, the Chess brothers (Leonard and Phil) were notorious cheapskates: if you wanted to be paid, you had to work. Legendary artists were no exception — perhaps especially if they were not selling records at the time. There are other stories of Muddy helping load amps and other equipment into the studio, which seems to corroborate Keith’s tale alone.
But there are some who dismiss the story, including Marshall Chess, son of label co-founder Leonard Chess. “No truth in it at all,” he says:
“Keith maintains to this day that it actually happened. I’ve laughed in his face many times as he’s insisted he saw Muddy up a ladder with a paint brush in hand. I guess people want to believe that it’s true. It says something about how unfashionable the blues had become at that time. By ’64 nobody really wanted to know. White people had never bought blues records.”
However, Marshall was just a young boy then, can his account really be trusted?
Whether Richards’s account is to be taken at face value or with a grain of salt, it’s an inarguable fact that they got to meet some of their heroes on that trip, and channelled them right then and there in that recording studio. The blues is encoded into the Rolling Stones’ DNA; they carried the torch forward and reintroduced their Chicago Blues influences like Buddy Guy and Junior Wells to a whole new generation of listeners.
When the Rolling Stones were booked for their first appearance on the Shindig broadcast in 1965, they insisted that Howlin’ Wolf open the show “as Richards and his bandmates sat on the stage at the foot of the master.” Check out this performance below (with a hilariously awkward introduction):
According to Richards, the legends they met in Chicago in ’64 were very welcoming to the British band, and excited about what they were doing with the blues. Both Muddy Waters and Bobby Womack offered insight and support during their session, and excitedly exchanged ideas. Regardless of who said what, the meeting and subsequent recording sessions at Chess Records were a milestone in music history.