Hello there! This week we will discuss a great classic rock song, Honky Tonk Women. We will first review the original song by The Rolling Stones. Next we will feature covers of this song by Ike & Tina Turner, and by Joe Cocker.
The Rolling Stones and Honky Tonk Women:
For over 50 years, the Rolling Stones have been one of the most successful bands in rock music history. They have also been one of our favorite groups to review in earlier blog posts: see here; here; here; here; here; here; here; here; here; and here.
Below is a photo of the Stones in 1969, following the death of Brian Jones. From L: drummer Charlie Watts; guitarist Mick Taylor; vocalist Mick Jagger; guitarist Keith Richards; bassist Bill Wyman.Embed from Getty Images
The Rolling Stones first formed in the early 60’s, when Brian Jones and pianist Ian Stewart joined forces with singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards. They began their career as leaders of a British blues revival, covering American blues standards by artists such as Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. After a short period they added bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts.
The Stones have been prolific, long-lived and exceptionally creative. Original member Ian Stewart was jettisoned in 1963, and Brian Jones was forced out in 1969 and died shortly afterwards; however, the remaining four Stones continued on until Wyman left the group in 1993; and Jagger, Richards and Watts still play with The Stones today.
Keith Richards and Mick Jagger have written songs for the group since the mid-60s. In September 1963, John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote I Wanna Be Your Man on the spot, during a visit with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The two Beatles gave the song to the Stones. Mick and Keith were impressed with how rapidly a pop song could be written; they decided to try their hand at it, and the rest is history.
In our review of the Stones’ tune Under My Thumb, we mentioned that several Rolling Stones songs could be labeled as misogynist, because of the general treatment of women in the tune. The song Honky Tonk Women might also fit into that category.
Honky Tonk Women was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards during a period from Dec. 1968 to Jan. 1969 when they were both on holiday in Brazil. The song describes various women (generally of low repute) with whom the singer has had relationships.
I met a gin-soaked, bar-room queen in Memphis
She tried to take me upstairs for a ride
She had to heave me right across her shoulder
‘Cause I just can’t seem to drink you off my mind.
[CHORUS] It’s the honky tonk women
Gimme, gimme, gimme the honky tonk blues
I laid a divorcée in New York City
I had to put up some kind of a fight
The lady then she covered me with roses
She blew my nose and then she blew my mind.
The Stones recorded two radically different versions of Honky Tonk Women. The first is what is termed the “Country Honk” version of the song. This was never released as a single, but appears on the Stones’ 1969 album Let It Bleed (the album title is a sardonic riff on the Beatles’ album Let It Be).
The lyrics of Country Honk differ slightly from those on the single release of Honky Tonk Women. In particular, the first line begins “I’m sittin’ in a bar, tipplin’ a jar in Jackson.”
So here is the audio of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Country Honk.’
Accorrding to Keith Richards,
“On Let It Bleed, we put that other version of Honky Tonk Women on because that’s how the song was originally written, as a real Hank Williams/Jimmie Rodgers, ’30s Country song.”
This song is certainly presented as a down-home country ditty. It features acoustic guitar from Keith Richards and an electric violin solo by Byron Berline, who had previously been a member of Gram Parsons’ band Flying Burrito Brothers.
Mick Taylor chimes in here on slide guitar. A fairly sad note is that this is the last song that included Brian Jones as a member of the Stones. Jones is believed to have played on early takes of this song that have not survived. Shortly afterwards Brian was dumped by the band, and on July 3, 1969 he died from drowning in his swimming pool.
I really enjoy the ‘Country Honk’ version of this tune, which represents a fairly significant departure from the Stones’ normal style. There is some controversy over where the song was recorded. Some people claim that the song was recorded at Elektra Studios in L.A. in March 1969.
Others claim that the song was actually recorded in London’s Olympia Studios, right after the Stones recorded the version of Honky Tonk Women that was released as a single. In this narrative, Byron Berline’s violin contribution was later added at Elektra Studios.
And now here is the better-known version of Honky Tonk Women. Here are the Stones performing this song on Top of the Pops in 1970.
This is the iconic version of Honky Tonk Women that everyone remembers. The song begins with a cowbell (played by Stones’ producer Jimmy Miller on the recording). It is dominated by a guitar line introduced by Mick Taylor, who subsequently replaced Brian Jones on the Stones.
As you can see, the song is converted into a classic-rock tune dominated by an unforgettable guitar solo. The single record of Honky Tonk Women was released a few months before the album Let It Bleed came out. The “B” side of the single was You Can’t Always Get What You Want. In my opinion, those two sides constitute one of the best single rock-music releases of all time.
Sadly, the single was released just one day after Brian Jones’ death. The record rapidly rose to #1 on the charts in both the U.S. and the U.K. Honky Tonk Women was rated the #116 song on the Rolling Stone magazine 2010 list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Honky Tonk Women has proved to be one of the Stones’ most durable hits. It is a favorite in Stones live concerts, and appears in a number of live concert DVDs and Rolling Stones boxed sets.
It’s hard to imagine that the Rolling Stones are still touring, more than 50 years after the band formed. Apparently Keith Richards is now having significant problems with arthritis, and in addition during the Stones’ performance at the 2006 Super Bowl halftime show, it was not clear that Keith realized what planet he was on.
But far be it from me to criticize the Stones, as they have proved to be one of the greatest and most durable rock music acts of all time. So, let them do whatever the hell they desire. If the Stones are suffering from “the honky-tonk blues,” they certainly don’t seem to show it.
Ike & Tina Turner and Honky Tonk Women:
Ike and Tina Turner formed one of the great R&B bands of the 60s and 70s. Ike Turner was a true rock music pioneer. Many people cite the 1951 record “Rocket 88” as being the first rock and roll song ever. Although the song is credited to “Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats,” it is actually performed by then 19-year-old Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm. Brenston was a saxophonist and singer with Ike Turner’s group, and Brenston is listed as the songwriter.
Ike Turner subsequently moved to St. Louis, where he and his Kings of Rhythm became one of the most famous bands in the area. Apparently they would play clubs in St. Louis until they closed, and then move to East St. Louis and continue to play until dawn.
In 1958 a nurse’s aide, Anna Mae Bullock, began dating one of Ike Turner’s bandmembers. After hanging out with the group for some time, Anna asked if she could sing with the band. When Anna was given the opportunity, Ike was impressed with both her singing ability and her flamboyant personality.
A serendipitous situation occurred when Ike and his Kings of Rhythm were set to record the song A Fool in Love. When the lead singer didn’t show up, the band recorded it with Anna on lead vocals. The song turned out to be a surprise hit, reaching #2 on the R&B charts and 27 on the Billboard pop charts.
Here is a rather early photo of Ike and Tina Turner from 1964.Embed from Getty Images
At this point, Ike Turner had an epiphany. He gave Anna the stage name Tina Turner, and re-named his band The Ike and Tina Turner Revue. Perhaps even more importantly, Ike deliberately moved into the background, and made Tina’s singing and dancing the centerpiece of their shows.
Tina was an electrifying performer. With her teeny-tiny miniskirts, the exuberant energy of her dancing, and her rough and powerful vocals, she would rip a song right up. When this was combined with Ike Turner’s tight, disciplined backing band and the vocals and dancing from backup singers the Ikettes, it made for a dynamite combination.
The Ike and Tina Revue gained substantial fame. For quite some time they did not have a major hit; however, they were well known as a high-octane live act. On a couple of tours they opened for the Rolling Stones, which gave them even more exposure.
Things finally clicked for Ike and Tina in 1970. They released two albums that were both certified as gold records, their cover of CCR’s Proud Mary made it to #2 on the pop charts, and they won a Grammy with that record in the category Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
Here are Ike & Tina Turner in a live cover of Honky Tonk Women. This performance took place in 1970, not long after the group released its first big hit.
Isn’t this enjoyable? This song appeared on their 1969 album Nice ‘n Rough. Tina belts out the lyrics (modified to reverse the gender of the participants), accompanied by the Ikettes, all of them appearing in their trademark miniskirts.
As usual, Ike is playing guitar in the background and leading the band, which features an impressive horn section. This is a great tune to dance along with.
It’s impossible for me to watch Ike & Tina without conjuring up disturbing images of Ike Turner’s penchant for domestic violence. Apparently Tina endured several years of truly violent abuse until she finally left Ike in July 1976. Their situation was exacerbated by Ike’s serious drug addiction issues.
Tina received a divorce after a prolonged legal battle with Ike, although she relinquished nearly all financial claims in order to obtain a settlement. Both of their careers languished for a time following their divorce. However, in 1984 Tina’s Private Dancer project became one of the best-selling albums of all time. It re-established her solo career and made her one of the top-grossing rock music tours. Good for Tina – after years of violent treatment, she rebounded with a fantastic comeback!
Unfortunately Ike, the sorry bastard, never seemed to come to terms with his violent ways. I never heard him take responsibility for his behavior, right up to his death in 2007 of a cocaine overdose, exacerbated by cardiovascular disease and emphysema.
What a shame, as Ike Turner was one of the great early pioneers of rhythm and blues, and he assembled a great band. Ike and Tina Turner were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. Alas, Ike was in prison for drug offenses at the time, and Tina did not attend the induction. But we wish all the best to Tina, a brave survivor of domestic abuse.
Joe Cocker and Honky Tonk Women:
Joe Cocker is one of my favorite artists, despite the fact that he had relatively few original songs. However, he was a terrific bluesman whose best covers brought an entirely new take on a classic song.
In the late 1950s, Cocker was attracted to music by following the career of British skiffle musician Lonnie Donegan, the artist who inspired not only the early Beatles, but an entire generation of British pop musicians.
Below is a photo of Joe Cocker performing on stage with the Grease Band, together with an extremely friendly fan. It is, of course, from the 60s.Embed from Getty Images
Cocker then became interested in rock and blues. He had the good sense to pattern his vocal stylings after a soul singer like Ray Charles. You can definitely detect the influence of Ray Charles in Cocker’s vocals.
Cocker next worked his way through the British club circuit. Initially, he made little headway until he hooked up with Denny Cordell, the producer for British progressive-rock groups such as Procul Harum and The Moody Blues. With Cordell’s backing, Cocker was able to book larger venues and to work with more talented studio musicians.
After a couple of minor hits in the UK, Joe Cocker hit the big time with his appearance at Woodstock. Cocker became an overnight star, particularly for his sensational cover of the Beatles’ song With a Little Help From My Friends. His career then took off like a rocket.
Here is Joe Cocker in a live performance of the Rolling Stones tune Honky Tonk Women.
This took place during Cocker’s 1970 Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour. That tour featured Leon Russell as the leader of Cocker’s band and the arranger for his songs. What a wonderful live performance! Note that the lyrics in Cocker’s version are completely different from the original lyrics.
Cocker is in great form here. He and the band, led by Leon on guitar, blast through this song. The oversized ensemble includes a terrific chorus and an energetic horn section, held together by Joe’s great bluesy vocals. It would have been great fun to see this tour live.
Once Joe Cocker gained fame, he continued to carve out an incredibly successful career as a blues vocalist. Cocker’s songs generally featured creative arrangements, and he worked with some very talented producers and studio musicians.
Everyone has a list of deserving musicians who have not yet been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Joe Cocker and Dire Straits were right at the top of my list, until Dire Straits was inducted this year. It’s hard for me to see why Joe Cocker was not inducted many years ago.
Rockers such as Billy Joel have been campaigning for Cocker’s induction. By any rational reckoning, he should be a member. For example, Cocker was awarded the Order of the British Empire by the Queen in 2008 for ‘services to music.’ So apparently it is easier to be knighted than to get into the Rock Hall of Fame. In addition, Rolling Stone magazine rates Cocker as #97 on their list of the 100 greatest rock singers — go figure.
Joe Cocker died from lung cancer in Dec. 2014. He is deeply missed.