The Rolling Stones Owe Chicago a Free Concert

The Stones at the United Center in 2013

The Rolling Stones Owe Chicago a Free Concert

Tickets to the band’s summer show at Soldier Field top out at $3,621. How about a freebie for the city whose sound made them stars?

Tickets go on sale this week for the Rolling Stones’ June 19 concert at Soldier Field. Prices range from $215 in the grandstand to $3,621 for pit seats close enough to see Mick Jagger’s dye job.

I have a better suggestion for ticket prices: Nothing. The Rolling Stones should put on a free concert in Grant Park, open to all Chicagoans, whether or not they can afford to spend a mortgage payment on a ticket. They owe it to us, after all, for the millions of dollars they’ve accumulated with this city’s sound.

The Stones, you may recall, began as a Chicago blues cover band, to the point of naming themselves after the Muddy Waters song “Rollin’ Stone.” Their first album, England’s Newest Hitmakers, included covers of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do.” They later recorded an instrumental titled “2120 Michigan Avenue,” the address of Chess Records, which produced the music of their inspirations.

In 1972, when the Stones played the old Stadium, Bob Greene of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote a column about how one of the Stones’ greatest inspirations, Howlin’ Wolf, was living on the South Side, suffering from kidney failure and too broke to buy a $9.50 ticket to the show. The Stones hadn’t bothered to offer him one, either. In one of my all-time favorite musical disses, Greene wrote that Jagger “became a multimillionire after learning to sing the blues at the London School of Economics.”

“I’m glad for them to be able to do it,” the Wolf said of his imitators’ musical success. “I wasn’t able to do nothing with it. When all the goodness was coming to musicians, I was on the way out. I never made too much. My records never done too good. I farmed when I was coming up. I made more money working on the farm than I did with my music.”

After Greene’s column was published, the Stones sent a limousine to bring Howlin’ Wolf to their show, then promised to visit his house the next night for a home-cooked meal. Only bassist Bill Wyman showed up, but he and Howlin’ Wolf jammed until five in the morning. Four years later, Howlin’ Wolf passed away, at the age of 65.

The Stones needed to copy American bluesmen, because they weren’t going to make it playing music from their own country. England’s contributions to popular song consists of music hall fare such as “Knees Up, Mother Brown” and “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am.” If the Stones had stuck to that, they’d be playing the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles next June, along with Herman’s Hermits. (Tickets $49 to $89.)

The Stones visited Chicago on another occasion in 1981, during the tour captured on film in Let’s Spend the Night Together. The band attended a Muddy Waters set at the Checkerboard Lounge. Muddy invited them up onstage to sing “Mannish Boy” and “Baby Please Don’t Go.” Jagger, who was then the wealthiest and most famous rock star in the world, was as deferential as a paid-by-the-gig session musician on that tiny stage. Jagger knew his place. The Checkerboard was Muddy’s house, and the blues were his music.

As if to bring their career full circle, the Stones’s last album, 2016’s Blue and Lonesome, was a collection of blues covers. Many of the songs were originally written or immortalized by Chicago musicians. Among them: Little Walter’s “Blue and Lonesome,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Commit a Crime,” Magic Sam’s “All of Your Love,” Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” and Eddie Taylor’s “Ride ‘Em on Down,” derived from a Bukka White standard.

I did not purchase the album. Instead, I looked at the track listing, went onto YouTube, and listened to the original versions. It was the best Chicago music compilation I’ve heard since Chicago/The Blues/Today! I can at least thank the Stones for their contributions as archivists.

I’m sure the Stones made millions off Blue and Lonesome, and they’re expected to gross $10 million off their Soldier Field concert. That’s definitely more than any of the artists they covered on Blue and Lonesome ever earned for a show, and probably more than most earned in their entire careers.

(Speaking of English musicians who stole our sound, Chicago is also owed free concerts by Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and Rod Stewart.)

I doubt Mick Jagger will read this article — and even if he does, I doubt even more that he’ll take up my request for a free concert. That’s not how he does business. After all, he learned to sing the blues at the London School of Economics.

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