Singled Out: Zamora Rose Project's Painting It Blue
The song "Painting It Blue" originated in a vignette from the autobiography of Keith Richards. In his book entitled "Life", Richards tells about the Rolling Stones going to visit Chess Records in Chicago on their first tour of the US. Chess had been the home of many of their idols including Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. So they wanted to check it out.
Apparently, when they walked in to the recording studio at Chess they saw a man on a ladder painting the ceiling. Richards did a double take when he recognized the painter as Muddy Waters. At the time, Muddy's career wasn't going too well. And apparently he had to earn his keep by doing work around the studio, including painting it. His career would later pick up when the Stones and other British groups would re-introduce the blues back to the American public.
Muddy Waters also had a special connection to the Rolling Stones as they took their name from one of his songs "Rollin' Stone" (also known as Catfish Blues). By reading the book, you got Richards' impression of that awkward meeting.
I wondered what Muddy Waters thought about the whole thing. Here was this young group of white, British musicians and they were getting a lot of press, radio play, and big sold out concerts by playing a version of the blues, when he had been playing the blues for over forty years, and was one of the pioneers of the genre and yet he had to paint the studio to earn his keep. To add insult to injury this group had lifted their name, the Rolling Stones, from one of his songs. It had to be a tough pill to swallow.
So, on a Sunday I started writing some lyrics. Writing from Muddy's perspective:
I'm painting the ceiling
Painting it blue
I decided to have him "painting it blue" as simile to the blues. And in some ways it is a takeoff on the Stones song "Paint It Black".
Records ain't sellin'
Got nothing to do
It was a fact that the early 60's were a low period in Muddy's career as he hadn't had a hit record since 1956. And Chess was undoubtedly less than thrilled with his production. Thus his
maintenance duties to stay on the roster.
In roll the stones
Lookin' so new
The Rolling Stones at the time were still teenagers, while Muddy was in his late forties.
They borrowed the name
They borrowed the blues
This references the Stones taking their group name from his song Rollin' Stone. And co-opting the blues, which had been born in the Mississippi Delta and went electric in Chicago. And then was resurrected like a phoenix in the clubs of London. It must have sounded strange to Muddy to hear white British musicians playing his music back to him.
I know they are trying
To help where they can
The Stones, Eric Clapton and other British Invasion musicians did serve to bring more attention to black blues musicians like Muddy Waters and helped them revitalize their careers.
But I'm up on this ladder
Brush in my hand
But it wasn't helping Muddy at that point in time.
White boys are makin'
A ton off the blues
Sure makes you wonder
The path that you choose
No doubt the Stones, Animals, Cream and countless other white British groups have made way more money from blues songs than all of the black blues pioneers combined.
Forty long years
Of paying the dues
Writing the songs
And playing the blues
Hoping my songs
Will carry me through
Get down from this ladder
And start playing the blues
In the end, it was Muddy's songs that did ultimately carry him through. His song Manish Boy was covered by many other artists including the Rolling Stones and Muddy played it with Paul Butterfield at the Band's last concert immortalized in the famous film "The Last Waltz." He died a successful and revered artist.
Musically, "Painting It Blue" started with a chromatic bass line that I had written to match the lyric. I played it for Phil Zamora and my daughter Heather Scarlett Rose who was just back from Boston. She had just graduated from the Berklee College of Music and had moved back to California the week before. At the time I only had the first few lines of the lyrics, "I'm painting the ceiling, I'm painting it blue". We recorded a quick demo in Garageband, with Phil playing the bass, and Heather playing a rhythm guitar part, with both of them singing. We just made up further nonsense lyrics as a place holder. The demo only ran about 40 seconds or so, but we had the basics for the bass line and the rhythm guitar chord progression. That helped me fill out the rest of the lyrics. Heather and Phil later helped with a bridge and the choruses. The lyrics gave all of the needed clues to develop the melody line for the lead vocal. The demo of the song was done in about 2 week's time.
Phil Zamora then told me that his old band mate, James Petrella was a good blues guitar player and he would be a good person to play the lead on it. After we had recorded the basic rhythm track we sent it down to James via FTP down in Santa Maria, which is about 200 miles south of our studio in Half Moon Bay. I told James the whole story of Keith Richard and Muddy Waters and asked him to play his guitars parts as if he were channeling Keith Richards. I wanted the song to sound like a Stones song, a la "Jumping Jack Flash," "Brown Sugar," etc. Doing things remotely on musical tracks is a bit scary. You never know what you are going to get back; sometimes it is great. Sometimes it is a train wreck.
James recorded both a rhythm and lead guitar track and sent them back to us via FTP. We were thrilled with the results and didn't ask for any changes. We dropped them into the Pro Tools session, and they fit quite well with the drums and bass tracks. We did a few overdubs and had it mixed, bounced to tape, and mastered by Justin Weis.
Thus is the story of Painting It Blue.
I later sent a copy of the CD to Keith Richards' attorney Peter Parcher asking him to send it on to Keith. Richards' book had mentioned that Parcher had previously been a go between on another song for Richards with Hoagy Carmichael. I figured "Painting It Blue" may have some interest to Richards, as it came from that vignette in his book. But Parcher sent it back to me unopened saying he wasn't authorized to accept things on behalf of Richards. More likely he was just doing his gate keeper job, perhaps too diligently. Then again, I'm not exactly in the same songwriter zip code as Hoagy Carmichael.
In any case, maybe Richards will hear it someday...most probably not, but at least we were able to honor Muddy with the song. I am sure, that he no longer has painting duties in that big studio in the sky.
Hearing is believing. Now that you know the story behind the song, listen for yourself and learn more about the album right here!