CHICAGO — When Mick Jagger and Keith Richards bumped into each other at a train station in Dartford, England, 37 years ago, their conversation might have been tepid. The former grammar school chums hadn't spoken in years.
But within moments, these two British teenagers discovered a shared passion that has bound them together for four decades. Tucked under Jagger's arm that day was a stack of albums by Chicago blues musicians. Three years later, Jagger and Richards formed the Rolling Stones, naming the band after a song by legendary Chicago bluesman Muddy Waters.
It's appropriate, then, that the Stones kicked off their "Bridges to Babylon" tour on a chilly night last week here in the American city whose music first united them. Although their style has strayed from the blues over time, and Chicago's Soldier Field is hardly a lowdown honky-tonk, the Stones continue to pay homage to the musical tradition that launched them to stardom.
"Among the more gigantic bands in the world, the Stones are probably the most closely affiliated with the blues," says Doug Engel, director of promotions for Delmark Records, a Chicago-based blues label.
Although the Stones soon crossed over to rock 'n' roll and later experimented with everything from reggae to disco, their early music is inextricably bound to the blues. After topping the British charts with a pair of blues covers in 1963, the Stones toured the United States the following summer and made a beeline for the Windy City. They introduced themselves to blues artists Waters and Howlin' Wolf and recorded "It's All Over Now" at Chicago's famous South Side blues incubator, Chess Records.
For longtime blues players, most of whom were still largely unknown to white audiences outside Europe, these mop-topped kids from England were a curiosity. But they also offered a vehicle for broadening the appeal of the musical genre among white audiences stateside.
The Stones were always quick to acknowledge their creative debts. The band covered many blues songs, often with the active participation of their authors, and tapped blues legends like Wolf, Waters, and B.B. King to open their concerts and appear with them on televised variety shows.
As a result the Stones, and the blues in general, prospered. "We were making race records, that's what they called them back then," Waters said in a recent interview. In America, he explains, these recordings were slow to catch on among white kids. "Daddy wouldn't let you bring those records in the house 'cause Daddy didn't like that black music," he says. It's ironic, he says, that it took British musicians to introduce white Americans to their own home-grown music.
"There are a handful of bands and artists that have been essential bridges for bringing the blues to white audiences," says Bruce Iglauer, owner of Alligator Records, another Chicago blues label. "Of that group, the Stones are preeminent."
Today, traces of the Stones' blues roots are harder to detect. Over the years, the band has dabbled in different styles in efforts to stay current, and their just-released album, "Bridges to Babylon," is no exception. The band's 39th album, released on the Virgin label, contains rap and hip-hop and reflects more of a synthesized studio approach.
But in concert, the story is different. During the Chicago show, the band flashed pictures of blues performers like Waters and Junior Wells on a giant video screen. The Stones only performed two songs from their new album and relied mainly on songs before 1981 to charge the audience. It's clear that the band - and their fans - view earlier, bluesier songs like "Satisfaction" and "Let's Spend the Night Together" as the band's true legacy.
It's not clear whether this 32-city North American tour will be the band's last. Mick Jagger is a grandfather but shows no sign of slowing down onstage. After a sluggish start, he kept the Chicago crowd of 53,000 cheering madly as he pranced down the catwalks in flashy get-ups.
With a massive video screen, a pair of huge inflatable Babylonian figures, a $3 million sound system, and plenty of pyrotechnics, the Stones have maintained the tradition of stadium extravaganzas they began with their 1984 "Steel Wheels" tour. Receipts are expected to top $400 million.
* The Rolling Stones are on the Internet at www.stones.com/start.html