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50 Years Ago: The Rolling Stones Get the Blues with ‘5 x 5’ EP

Decca

How ballsy were the Rolling Stones? Consider this: Without a real hit to their name in America, they walked into the home of their heroes and, with some of them in attendance, knocked ‘em flat. The result, an EP called ‘5 x 5,’ was released in the UK on Aug. 14, 1964.

Two months earlier, on their first U.S. tour, the Stones made a special stop. “2120 South Michigan Avenue was hallowed ground — the headquarters of Chess Records in Chicago,” Keith Richards wrote in ‘Life.’ “We got there on a last-minute arrangement made by Andrew Loog Oldham, at a moment when the first half of our first U.S. tour seemed like a semidisaster.”

Indeed, a few days earlier, in San Antonio, the band was booed offstage during their set at the Teen Fair of Texas. At the time, they had only placed one song, a cover of Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away,’ in the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 48 (their second U.S. single, the better-performing ‘Tell Me,’ would be released during the tour). Walking into Chess proved to be the tonic they needed, even if they were shocked by what they saw upon their arrival.

Reports vary as to what actually happened, but Richards has often stated that Muddy Waters was painting the ceiling. ‘Whether he was being a nice guy or he wasn’t selling records then,” Richards added. “I know what the Chess brothers were bloody well like — if you want to stay on the payroll, get to work.” Others have said that Waters helped them unload their equipment. Regardless, it was still a shock for them to see that Waters, whose song ‘Rollin’ Stone’ was responsible for the band’s name, being treated so poorly. On the positive side, he welcomed the young Brits with open arms.

“Actually meeting your heroes, your idols,” Richards continued. “The weirdest thing is that most of them are so humble, and very encouraging. ‘Play that lick again,’ and you realize you’re sitting with Muddy Waters. And, of course, later I got to know him.”

Listen to ’2120 South Michigan Avenue’ by the Rolling Stones

In a few days at Chess, the band cut about a dozen songs, with Waters — and possibly Buddy Guy and Willie Dixon — watching them in the long, narrow studio on the second floor and being impressed with what these young, scruffy, white Brits were doing with their music. Five of the songs wound up on ‘5 x 5.’ Two of the tracks were their own compositions: Named after the address where it was recorded, ‘2120 South Michigan Avenue’ was an organ-fueled instrumental that, oddly enough, owed more to Stax’s Booker T. and the MGs than the snarling Chicago blues. ‘Empty Heart’ showed that they were still grappling with the idea of songwriting.

Both songs were credited to “Nanker Phelge,” a pseudonym the Stones used in the early days on songs written by all of its members, including “sixth Stone” Ian Stewart. “Nanker” referred to a silly face that the band — mostly Brian Jones — would make, while “Phelge” was the last name of a man who shared the flat in Edith Grove with Jones, Richards and Mick Jagger.

Of the covers, ‘If You Need Me’ is a strong take on the Solomon Burke hit that was co-written by Wilson Pickett, ‘Confessin’ the Blues’ was a slowed-down version of Jay McShann’s swing-era hit. But the best track on the EP closed it out. Originally an unspectacular b-side to Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ the Stones took ‘Around and Around,’ sped it up and knocked it out of the park.

In October, the Stones took the EP, added seven songs, including the hits ‘It’s All Over Now’ and ‘Time Is on My Side,’ and released it in America as ’12 x 5.’ It reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200.

Watch the Rolling Stones Perform ‘Around and Around’

Next: Top 100 Rolling Stones Songs

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