We’re taking a bit of a dip into the blues today, and looking back at one of the first British rock groups to record a modern electric blues song. The Rolling Stones recorded “Little Red Rooster” in 1964, with original member Brian Jones taking the lead in its development.
But The Rolling Stones weren’t the first to record “Little Red Rooster”. This blues standard, originally called “The Red Rooster” was arranged by blues songwriter Willie Dixon. It was first recorded by American blues musician, Howlin’ Wolf in 1961.
Since then, many musicians and bands have covered the song, putting their own spin on it. In 1963, Sam Cooke’s upbeat version did well as a single on the rhythm and blues, and pop charts. Some versions (including the Stones’) added instrumentation to mimic the sound of animals mentioned in the lyrics.
Little Red Rooster
“Little Red Rooster” is straight up blues, plain and simple. The song is structured in the well known twelve-bar blues pattern, and played in a moderately slow tempo. Jagger uses the same lyrics as the original for the most part, with a slight variation when he sings, “I am the little red rooster” instead of “I got a little red rooster”.
There doesn’t seem to be anything incredibly special about this recording from the first listen. But knowing the history behind what the Stones were doing – the torch they were accepting, can shed this seemingly simple song in a new light.
Blues artists Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were both big influences on the Rolling Stones, and especially Brian Jones. The Howlin’ Wolf version features an incredible slide guitar riff in it. This must have been picked up by Jones, who takes to the slide in similar fashion on the Stones’ recording.
The track was recorded at both Regent Sound Studios in London, and Chess Studios in Chicago. Foreshadowing future tensions, “Little Red Rooster” was recorded by the band without Jones, who later laid down his slide guitar separately.
It was due largely to Jones’ use of both slide and harmonica that this single reached the top of the British pop charts. Jones’ slide mimics the sound of howling hounds, barking dogs, and a crowing rooster, that really makes the track stand out.
While “Little Red Rooster” was recorded on September 2nd, 1964, it wasn’t released until Friday, November 13th of the same year. It reached the top of the charts by December, and remains the only time a blues song has topped the British pop charts, although it only stayed there for a week. It was also the Rolling Stones’ last cover song to be released as a single in the 1960’s.
The single was criticized by some as “noncommercial”, “slow” and not “dancey” enough, but coming from the Stones, it still managed to be a huge hit. In both 1964 and 1965, the Stones performed “Little Red Rooster” several times on television, including “The Ed Sullivan Show”.
“Little Red Rooster” is included on the Rolling Stones’ third American album, “The Rolling Stones, Now!”. The track also appears on several Rolling Stones compilation albums.