The Rolling Stones Jam with Muddy Waters for the First and Only Time at Chicago’s Legendary Checkerboard Lounge (1981)

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

10-Sto­ry High Mur­al of Mud­dy Waters Goes Up in Chica­go

A Visu­al His­to­ry of The Rolling Stones Doc­u­ment­ed in a Beau­ti­ful, 450-Page Pho­to Book by Taschen

The Rolling Stones Release a Long Lost Track Fea­tur­ing Led Zeppelin’s Jim­my Page

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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