Whatever marketing materials may claim, the Rolling Stones did not just happen upon Buddy Guy’s Checkerboard Lounge on Chicago’s South Side (before it closed, reopened in Hyde Park, then closed again for good) on a night when Muddy Waters happened to be there in 1981. And they did not spontaneously get invited to jam, as it seems, when they “climbed over tables” to get onstage with their hero and blues legends Buddy Guy and Junior Wells.
A chance meeting, of course, would have been magical, but the truth is the event was probably “planned and coordinated,” writes W. Scott Poole at Popmatters. These were the biggest names in the blues and rock and roll, after all. “Why,” before the Stones and their entourage arrive, “is there an empty table on the night Muddy Waters came back to Southside?”
And why did the Rolling Stones’ manager claim he “approached the Checkerboard higher-ups a week in advance,” Ted Scheinman writes at Slant, “proposing a surprise concert and proffering $500 as proof-of earnest”?
Was it a cynical ploy to re-establish the band’s blues cred during what would turn out to be the largest grossing tour of the year — one featuring what Jagger called “enormous images of a guitar, a car and a record — an Americana idea.” In some sense, Muddy Waters was also an “Americana idea,” but how could he be otherwise to the Stones, given that they’d grown up listening to him from across the Atlantic, associating him with experiences they had never known firsthand?
And so what if the historic meeting at the Checkerboard Lounge was stage-managed behind the scenes? That’s what managers do — they arrange things behind the scenes and let performers create the illusion of spontaneity, as though they hadn’t spent an entire tour, or decades of tours, making the same songs seem fresh on any given night. When it comes to the blues, playing the same songs over again is a key part of the game, seeing how much attitude and style one can wring out of a few chords, doggedly persistent themes of sex, love, death, betrayal, and maybe a bottleneck slide.
It’s a lesson the Stones learned well, and their adoration and respect for Muddy Waters is nothing less than genuine, even if it took some backstage negotiation to bring them together this one and only time. Muddy is spectacular. “Even as one of the aging elder statesmen of the Chicago blues in 1981,” writes Poole, “he exudes an aura of sex and power, showing off every attribute that so inspired Mick and Keith and that became an ineffable part of their own music and their persona.”
Meanwhile, the absolutely boyish glee on the faces of Jagger, Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Stones’ pianist Ian Stewart as they perform onstage with an artist who had given them so much more than just their name speaks for itself. The concert video and live album “began appearing as bootleg and unofficial releases almost immediately,” Allmusic notes, “from LP and CD to VHS and DVD.” Here, you can see them jam out three songs from the night: “Baby Please Don’t Go” (on which Waters brings Jagger onstage at 5:30 for an extended version and Keith joins at 6:50), “Mannish Boy,” and “Hoochie Coochie Man.”