The debut song by The Rolling Stones was simultaneously fortunate and unlucky.
On the one hand, Chuck Berry’s recording career, which has lasted more than six decades, began with the version of “Come On” that was released on June 7, 1963, nearly 19 months after the original. Additionally, it marked the debut of the young Stones on the U.K. charts.
Jagger and Richards weren’t intentionally not trying to make songs; they were just not very good or, in the words of manager-producer Andrew Loog Oldham, “soppy and imitative.” When we first started, Richards said to this reporter in 1986, “We weren’t naturals.” “Getting it properly took a lot of time. We kept writing these ballads, but no one seemed to like them. The band wasn’t interested in making that type of music. So we continued to strike at it. When things got to that stage, Oldham is known for locking Jagger and Richards in a room and telling them to “come out with a song.” The outcome was “As Tears Go By,” which Marianne Faithfull initially recorded. A follow-up song, “Tell Me,” appeared on the Rolling Stones‘ first album in April 1964 and peaked at No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Stones released “The Last Time” as their debut A-side single in early 1965; it peaked at No. 10 in the U.K. and No. 9 in the U.S.
It’s safe to say that Jagger and Richards quickly understood the situation. The team was writing an LP’s worth of songs by themselves by 1966’s Aftermath, and in 1993 they were given a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
However, choosing a Chuck Berry song for the Stones’ debut album made a lot of sense because Jagger and Richards connected with him when they first met on October 17, 1961, at a train station in their native Dartford.
Richards stated in a letter to his aunt that was published as part of his autobiography, Life, “I was keen on Chuck Berry, and I thought I was the only fan for miles.” But one morning on Dartford Street, I was carrying a record by Chuck when a man I knew from elementary school approached me. They are all rhythm and blues aficionados, true R&B I mean (not this Dinah Shore, Brook Benton garbage) Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker – all the Chicago bluesmen real dirty stuff, great.” He has every album Chuck Berry has ever released, and all of his friends have, too.
The Stones, who had already recorded at London’s IBC Studios earlier in the year, inked a deal with Decca Records in April 1963 and began their first sessions there on May 10, 1963. The last song Berry released before going to jail for moving an underage kid over state lines was “Come On,” which was released in October 1961 but failed to chart as a result of the controversy. It wasn’t one of the many Berry covers the Stones were performing at the time, either, but they came up with a snappy minute and 48-second version with backing vocals from Bill Wyman and Brian Jones, as well as a few harmonica honks from Jones. The Stones enlisted another of their favorites, Muddy Waters, for a B-side performance of his “I Want to Be Loved,” which Jagger described as “a bunch of bloody amateurs going to make a hit single.”
Richards wrote in Life, “I didn’t think it was the best thing we could have done, but I did know it was something that would make a mark. As a recording, it’s probably better than I thought it was at the time. But I have a feeling we thought that was the only shot we had in our locker then. … It’s very different from Chuck Berry’s version; it’s very Beatle-ized, in fact.”
Oldham, who was still a novice producer, delegated the mixing duties to engineer Roger Savage. Oldham encouraged Stones fan club members to purchase the album at record stores that submitted sales data to the UK’s Official Charts Company, helping it get to No. 21 despite Decca’s scant promotional efforts, which included only one advertisement.
The Stones’ profile enabled them to perform in larger U.K. venues and make TV appearances. On July 7, while lip-syncing to a recording of “Come On” for the Lucky Stars Summer Spin in Birmingham, the band made their small-screen debut. The Rolling Stones performed the same on August 23 for the influential Ready Steady Go! in London, beginning a lengthy relationship with the show’s producer Michael Lindsay-Hogg who would go on to film videos as well as The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus in 1968. By 1965, “Come On” had been dropped from the Stones’ live set list, but on June 6, 2013, as part of the 50 & Counting Tour’s Toronto stop, Jagger sang a brief segment of the song to commemorate the single’s 50th birthday.
Jagger has long been critical of “Come On,” but in a 1968 interview with Rolling Stone, he expressed optimism about the song’s exposure to a wider audience as a result of the Stones’ rendition of it: “They never knew anything about it. … So you could say that we did blues to turn people on, but why they should be turned on by us is unbelievably stupid. I mean, what’s the point in listening to us doing ‘I’m a King Bee’ when you can listen to Slim Harpo doing it?”
The Beatles’ John Lennon and Paul McCartney contributed to the writing of the Stones’ subsequent song, “I Wanna Be Your Man,” which was released five months after “Come On” and reached No. 12 on the U.K. chart.