In the summer of 1963, the Rolling Stones released their debut single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On.” At first, British R&B was imitative, and consisted mostly of young white men covering songs by black Americans that were going unheard by white audiences. “The Stones looked under the rug where white America had swept the cultural rhinestone of R&B,” the band’s troublemaking producer and manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, wrote in his autobiography.
For a while, British R&B competed on the charts with the boyish, clean-cut sound of Merseybeat groups like Gerry and the Pacemakers and Herman’s Hermits. But it didn’t take long for the rougher music to prevail, and within a year of the Stones’ first single, Merseybeat was over.
As British R&B blossomed, musicians flocked to Dobell’s, a London record shop that specialized in blues, jazz and folk imports from America. Once they heard the latest singles by Bo Diddley or Willie Dixon, they’d add those songs to their repertoire. That created a glut of bands covering the same material. Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning,” for instance, was covered by the Who, the Animals, the Yardbirds and Manfred Mann. There were more than 2,000 R&B bands in England by the end of 1964, according to one estimate.
The better bands figured out a solution: write your own songs, a strategy that had worked out pretty well for the Beatles. The Stones released “Tell Me,” an original composition, in spring 1964. The same year, the Animals recorded “I’m Crying,” written by two band members. Early in 1965, the Pretty Things, a rough and rumbling band fronted by Phil May, who died in May 2020 from complications that followed his hip surgery, released “Honey, I Need,” which was co-written by the band’s guitarist Dick Taylor.
Some groups leaned toward the blues side of R&B, and others to the rhythm side. In addition to the Stones, the Animals, Manfred Mann and the Pretty Things (pictured at top c. 1965), a number of solid-to-great bands emerged: the Graham Bond Organization, the Kinks, Cyril Davies and his R&B All-Stars, the Spencer Davis Group, Them, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Alexis Korner, the Cheynes and the Yardbirds, whose lineup included, at various moments, guitar greats Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
Some of them had huge success, from the mid-’60s and well into the ’70s, selling British versions of American R&B to Americans. The irony wasn’t lost on Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who cherished the cultural rhinestone of black American music: “You had it all the time, pal,” he said in 2009. “You just didn’t listen.”
On their third American album in 10 months, released in February 1965, the Rolling Stones continued to separate themselves from their R&B peers. They had elite taste in American songwriters, covering a filthy Willie Dixon blues and songs by Chuck Berry and Allen Toussaint. To these tributes they added originals written by singer Mick Jagger and Richards, including “Heart of Stone,” a ballad about a cruel playboy who laughs about how many girls he’s hurt. It was a Top 20 single that helped build the Stones’ mystique as snarling “bad boys,” as did liner notes from producer and manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who told fans that if they didn’t have money to buy the LP, they should steal from a blind man and beat him up. A member of the House of Lords suggested the band be prosecuted, which is the kind of publicity money can’t buy.
The greatest R&B singer to come out of the U.K. was a disagreeable Irishman: Van Morrison of Them, a group whose songs tremble with tense dynamics and brooding attitude. Their 1965 debut album led off with “Mystic Eyes,” which Morrison wrote, he said, after he passed a graveyard and thought about “the cloudy lights in the eyes of the dead.” (Iggy Pop cited it as a huge influence on him.) “Mystic Eyes” was the album’s biggest hit, but the most enduring song is the often-covered “Gloria,” a drooling tribute to a girl who visits only late at night. It might be rock’s first booty-call song. Morrison quit the group one year later, and soon, with “Brown Eyed Girl” and Astral Weeks, started to build one of music’s great careers.
According to legend, Mick Jagger told the producers of Ready Steady Go!, a British TV show, that the Rolling Stones refused to perform on the same show as the Pretty Things because they were the only band more unruly than the Stones. (The Pretty Things were once banned in Australia, a country famous for misbehavior.) Guitarist Dick Taylor had been in an early lineup of the Stones, and he spent the next five decades calmly saying no, he didn’t regret leaving them. On their late-’65 second album, the Pretty Things created a sound, exemplified by “Buzz the Jerk,” that was homely and shocked with distortion. Purists were horrified, but David Bowie idolized them, and the Clash adapted the reissue bonus track “Midnight to Six Man,” about the thrill and the gloom of being a musician, in their song “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais.”
Eric Burdon of the Animals was the most limited of the famous British R&B singers; he got by on enthusiasm and manly bravado, rather than range or tone. By their third album, which came out in the spring of 1966, keyboardist Dave Rowberry was arranging, co-writing with Burdon and playing solid honky-tonk piano, one of the Animals’ strengths. The expanded digital album includes two Top 20 U.S. hits, “See See Rider,” a traditional blues song arranged by Rowberry, and “Don’t Bring Me Down” (written by the great team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King), which the band drenched with stammering, fuzzed-out tremolo guitar. Years later, King approached Burdon in a dentist’s waiting room and said to him, “I hated what you did to my song … but I got used to it.”