Hooked on the blues: He¿s famous for fish, but Rick Stein has another passion ¿ the music of America¿s Deep South
Last updated at 10:30 PM on 18th November 2011
The day the blues hit me is one I’ll never forget. At my boarding school, Uppingham, near Leicester, we each had a study and my friend Christopher Arnott’s was just across from mine. It was 1962.
One night he said, ‘Come and listen to this.’ It was a blue and cream 45 with the words Chess Records on it. It was the single playing on his Dansette automatic record player – we all craved that player, an automatic! The song was Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning.
‘Ah, oh, smokestack lightning/Shinin’, just like gold.’ He sang with such swagger in his voice; coming out of the darkness, so assured, gravelly, so lived-in, and the harmonica playing was like the wail of a train.
Rick Stein, famous for his culinary pursuits, recalls how he fell in love with the blues at Abe’s BBQ and Blues Bar, in Mississippi
At the time the records in the British charts were things like Acker Bilk’s Stranger On The Shore, which had been number one for what seemed like 100 years. Elvis, my absolute hero, had gone soft with songs from a succession of his travel films like GI Blues and Blue Hawaii and was in the charts with Rock-A-Hula Baby.
I was no purist. I liked Rock-A-Hula Baby, but even I could see that his early songs like Hound Dog and Heartbreak Hotel had more guts. Howlin’ Wolf was in a different league. There was something hypnotic in that simple monotonous chant that hit straight home. It was dangerous black music and very exciting.
I was always irritating my parents, lying on my bed all day listening to Elvis and BB King. I wanted to be anything but a nice boy from the shires…
I was not alone; there was big change happening at the time. I was a privileged, middle-class boy from Oxfordshire, but out there were much more gritty guys like Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and Eric Clapton. They were using this black, country music to say something about their own frustrating urban lives and make a name for themselves.
In 1964 the Rolling Stones had a number one with another Howlin’ Wolf song, Little Red Rooster. I felt the strength of it immediately, but it took me a while to understand why a song about a farmyard animal could be so satisfying. A little red rooster ‘too lazy to crow the day/keep everything in the barnyard upset in every way’.
Rick’s idol BB King in the early 70s
Well, looking back, I was that little red rooster, always irritating my parents, lying on my bed all day listening to Elvis and BB King. I wanted to be anything but a nice boy from the shires. One of my mother’s friends asked her where I got the dreadful transatlantic accent from. It was music that spoke to me as a rebellious teenager. The blues has always been a great source of emotional resonance to me.
I’ve been told that my glass is always half empty rather than half full, so the blues is where I belong. When my first love affair came apart in my twenties, it was only natural that BB King came to my assistance with The Thrill Is Gone. I wallowed in the blues. I can always remember the limpid guitar solo and the wailing sax and then the funky but desperate end.
Cool blues are the best way to get over a lost love. And it’s always been like that, whenever distressing things have happened to me there’s always been a blues song to remember them by. Bell Bottom Blues, my favourite Eric Clapton song, reminds me of the time in the Seventies when my nightclub in Padstow was closed down by the police and I was facing bankruptcy. The song is about losing love, but to me it was about losing the club.
It’s not just the bad times though. Working every hour in my Padstow restaurant, blues songs would keep me going in the heat of a busy lunch or dinner. BB King’s You Upset Me Baby over and over again with the line, ‘Like being hit by a falling tree, woman, woman what do you do to me.’ A bit like being hit by 24 orders! The blues to me are like poems, a way of distancing yourself from difficult times by singing great songs about them.
It doesn’t matter if the song’s about trains leaving the Mississippi Delta, levees breaking, or unfaithful women, they’re good if they’re filled with energy and life. This summer I was lucky enough to go to Mississippi to make a film about the blues and food called Rick Stein Tastes The Blues, which is being shown on BBC4. The thing that hit me like a falling tree was the sheer energy of the musicians I met.
My favourite Eric Clapton song, reminds me of the time in the Seventies when my nightclub in Padstow was closed down by the police and I was facing bankruptcy
One of the highlights was the day BB
King came to his home town of Indianola to play at a blues festival in
his honour. I was lucky enough to interview him as he stepped off his
tour bus after I’d waited an hour in 100-degree heat. Gosh, I was
nervous. He was in his eighties and still performing, but he was
gracious enough to acknowledge he loved coming back for the home cooking
of his childhood.
Later we went to listen to some blues in a nearby bar, the Blue Biscuit. There was a blues musician, Terry ‘Harmonica’ Bean, singing a song called I’m A Bluesman, full of raw energy. The bar was jumping, the smoky barbecue pork and Lazy Magnolia beer were all I needed and the music made you just want to get on your feet. I asked Terry why he sang the blues. ‘When I first heard it, it grabbed me,’ he said. ‘Grabbed me.’ It grabbed me too, being there.
Chatting to a singer in his eighties called Cadillac John, who could recall the day his baby left him like it was yesterday, or talking food and the blues to a bunch of black guys at a restaurant called The Senator’s Place, I was just thrilled by the language and the love of the local cooking. I make programmes all over the world about local food but to hear people talk about the importance of turnip greens and southern-fried catfish with coleslaw was to me as much a part of living the blues as the music itself.
That and driving through Mississippi. It’s the most beautiful country, a vast, flat, fertile land, and it’s a heady experience, especially if you’re listening to John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters. In the summer, it’s always 100 degrees and thunderously humid. It’s the reality of the blues I’ve been listening to all my life. But it’s also still a place of hardship.
Most early blues singers couldn’t wait to get out of the Delta to places like Chicago or Detroit to find a wider audience for their music and make some money. These days there are not even jobs in the cotton fields thanks to mechanisation. It’s tough, but it’s still a place for the blues. As Terry ‘Harmonica’ Bean says, ‘Music is the blues and the blues is music. If you ain’t got no blues you ain’t got no music.’
Rick Stein Tastes the Blues is on BBC4, tonight, at 12.30am
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