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Revisit The Rolling Stones’ first-ever gig 60 years later

The Rolling Stones’ career doesn’t actually start with anyone in The Rolling Stones. Instead, it begins with a man named Alexis Korner, a blues fanatic whose band Blues Incorporated held down a consistent Thursday night gig at the Marquee Club in London during the early 1960s. Young blues fanatics from across England would congregate to hear Korner’s band play, and more often than not, Korner would encourage some of the attendants to jump on stage with the band.

A few of those young attendants were Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones. The trio of young blues fans had only just started jamming with pianist Ian Stewart when Korner approached them with an offer: Korner was set to appear on BBC Radio’s Jazz Club programme and wouldn’t be able to make one of his weekly Thursday night gigs at the Marquee. Would the boys’ new band mind stepping in for him?

There were a few problems right off the bat. First off, the group didn’t even have a proper name yet. After some brainstorming, a riff on a Muddy Waters tune (sources differ on whether it was the actual ‘Rollin’ Stone Blues’ or one of Muddy’s improvisational vocal turns on ‘Mannish Boy’) gave the band its official title: The Rollin’ Stones.

The other problem was that the band didn’t have a definitive lineup. A preview article for the gig in that week’s edition of Jazz Weekly advertised the lineup as Jagger, Richards, Jones (going under the stage name of Elmo Lewis), Stewart, future Pretty Things guitarist Dick Taylor, and future Kinks drummer Mick Avory. Avory has denied playing with the band at the first gig, claiming that his friend Tony Chapman played instead, while band members themselves couldn’t seem to recall whether they played with a drummer at all.

In any case, the newly-solidified group wanted Blues Incorporated drummer Charlie Watts to join them, but he was already preoccupied with Korner’s group. Besides, Watts was making good money with Blues Incorporated – it would take another year before The Rollin’ Stones were able to shell out enough dough to convince Watts to join their ranks.

A single handwritten setlist from the July 12th gig survives, although it seems to be less of an actual setlist and more of a list of songs that the band can pull from. No actual arranged setlist from the night is known, but some of the songs that the band played included Little Richards’ ‘Kansas City’, Jimmy Reed’s ‘Bright Lights Big City’, and Robert Johnson’s ‘Dust My Broom’.

The group also included Jay McShann’s ‘Confessin’ the Blues’ on the list. The track would late be included on the band’s second EP Five By Five released in 1964 and later on The Rolling Stones’ second American LP 12 X 5. Keith Richards’ autobiography Life also recalls that Ann Cole’s ‘Got My Mojo Working’ was played that night. Various sources have attempted to reconstruct the exact setlist for the night, but since no audio recordings from the night survive or were ever recorded in the first place, it’s impossible to know exactly what the band played that night.

What we do know is that The Rollin’ Stones made a strong enough impression to get an invitation back. The Marquee Club would prove to be the band’s home base for their first two years. Taylor didn’t last for very long after the band’s first gig, and he would subsequently get replaced by Bill Wyman. Eventually, The Rollin’ Stones logged enough gigs to finally get Watts to join them on a permanent basis, and not long afterwards manager Andrew Loog Oldham would begin to push the band as the dirtier, more dangerous alternative to The Beatles.