The Rolling Stones Play Chess

The Rolling Stones Play Chess

How the band found Satisfaction in the blues and R&B

When the Rolling Stones arrived at Chess Records in June of 1964 – then located at 2120 South Michigan Avenue on Chicago's South Side – it was more a pilgrimage to hallowed grounds than simply another recording session. They were impressionable youth – Mick Jagger and Keith Richards barely 20 years old, Brian Jones 22, Charlie Watts 23, Ian Stewart 25 and Bill Wyman the elder statesman at 27 – playing in the same studio spaces as their blues and R&B idols, the performers they'd been emulating.

Although Chess Records did not allow groups not signed to the label to use its studios, Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones manager and producer, nonetheless reached out to make a case for his burgeoning band. He found a receptive ear in Marshall Chess.

Marshall had been working at Chess since he was 10 years old. His father Leonard and Uncle Phil had founded the label in Chicago, Illinois. The sibling Jewish immigrants from Poland came to the Windy City in 1928, where by the 1940s, they'd developed a number of bars and nightclubs, including the Macomba Lounge. The club hosted blues performers, which opened the brothers' eyes to a gap in the market. They eventually partnered with Charles and Evelyn Aron at Aristocrat Records to record some of the artists playing at their clubs. Arguably the most important artist to record for the label was a Mississippi transplant named McKinley Morganfield, whose stage name was Muddy Waters

Two years after the partnership with Aristocrat was formalized, the brothers founded the Chess label in 1949. With it came a mind-boggling flood of blues, R&B and rock and roll talent that included Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Etta James and Little Walter. Leonard, in particular, cultivated a roster of artists that favored his interest in roots music, carving a niche that made Chess the greatest repository of black music in the mid 20th century.

The Rolling Stones would've arrived in 1964 to find a narrow two-story building, with a door off the parking lot that opened to stairs that led to the recording studios. "It is certainly possible that Muddy [Waters] might have helped the Stones lug some equipment from the parking lot into the studios, because he was that kind of a guy," wrote Marshall Chess in According to the Rolling Stones. "The blues musicians weren't too interested in the Rolling Stones, but they did like the fact that they were covering their songs, and that, as a result, more and more people, particularly white people would become aware of their music." The Stones' June 1964 session at Chess Studios was fertile, producing more than a dozen tracks, including an inspired jam reverently titled "2120 South Michigan Avenue." Other cuts from that session included covers of Chuck Berry's "Around And Around," Big Bill Broonzy's "Tell Me Baby," Muddy Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied," Willie Dixon's "Down In The Bottom" and the Valentinos' "It's All Over Now" – a song written by Bobby Womack. The latter would go to Number One in the UK that summer. While Oldham was the producer for these sessions, it was Chess' engineer Ron Malo that succeeded in lending an authentic timbre to the band's recordings. "Andrew [Oldham] didn't know anything about blues," recalled Mick Jagger in Bill Wyman's Rolling with the Stones. "The cat who really got it together was Ron Malo, the engineer for Chess. He had been on all the original sessions."

In between visits from the likes of Buddy Guy and Willie Dixon – the latter reportedly attempting to sell the group songs – the Stones made quite an impression. Their appearance was particularly jarring to Midwestern sensibilities of the mid 60s (Brian Jones' shoulder-length hair, for example) and their decorum (or lack thereof) was shocking even for the staff of Chess, who were used to seeing their fair share of rabble-rousing. "At Chess, we had some pretty strange motherfuckers on the label, but we never had anyone who, like the Stones, drank straight from a bottle of Jack Daniels in the studio rather than nipping to the bathroom for a drink or a toke," wrote Marshall. "This was new even to us." In the May 23, 1964 issue of Melody Maker, Muddy Waters was quoted as saying: "They're my boys. I like their version of 'I Just Want To Make Love To You.' They fade it out just like we did." 

The Stones returned to Chess in November 1964, recording half a dozen tracks, most notably a version of "Time Is On My Side" that was cut for the UK market and reached Number One there in January 1965. "The biggest advantage of recording strong rhythm and blues in Chicago was that the engineers were a lot more used to that sort of music. I don't think anyone anywhere could record this type of music as effectively as they did in Chicago," said Stones drummer Charlie Watts in a July 1964 interview with Mersey Beat, billed as "Merseyside's Own Entertainments Paper."

When the Rolling Stones returned to Chess Studios on May 10 and 11, 1965, they again turned to engineer Ron Malo."It was incredible to see the studio and the way they operated, and to realize, when you plugged in there and heard what was coming off the tapes, that certain rooms do have certain sounds," recalled Keith Richards in According to the Rolling Stones. "We cut a lot of stuff there – it was such a warm room to play in, although it's not just the room, it's also to do with the guys who are operating it." The May sessions produced "The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man," "Mercy Mercy" and "That's How Strong My Love Is," all of which found inclusion on US and UK editions of Out Of Our Heads. It was also during this session that Richards played the band a song he'd worked up, one he envisioned as a slow-burning folk rock number. When Jagger heard the song's antagonistic lyrics, he suggested recasting it with a more demonstrative rock beat. Working through the night at Chess, the Rolling Stones recorded "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." The band then traveled to RCA in Hollywood, California, to finish recording the track with engineer Dave Hassinger. The final mono cut was released in May 1965 in the US (and August 1965 in the UK), peaking at Number One in both countries that summer.