Stop Breaking Down
Music/Lyrics: Robert Johnson
Original Artist: Robert Johnson
Original Album: Vocalion Record No. 4002 (1938)
Historian: Martin Acaster
Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues, recorded two versions of his original "Stop Breaking Down Blues" in successive takes during his June 20, 1937 recording session in Dallas, Texas. The first take was originally released in 1938 as a 78-RPM phonograph record on Vocalion Records and featured "Honeymoon Blues" on the B-side. This same recording was re-released by Columbia Records on the King of the Delta Blues Singers Volume II compilation album in 1970. The second take featured a different version of the opening verse and an additional undoubtedly euphemistic closing verse about a fiddler and the value of resin being applied to his bow, and was subsequently released on the Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings compilation that Columbia Records issued in 1990. Both of Johnson's takes feature his trademark plaintive wail and inimitable blues guitar style. As is often the case in Johnson's blues tales, the ladies are his primary antagonists in both versions of "Stop Breaking Down Blues." As he tells it, them street walking "saturday night womens" and gun-toting "pretty mamas" are always breaking down on him, despite (or perhaps because of) his claim to having the stuff to bust their brains out and make them lose their minds.
The Rolling Stones, known aficionados of Robert Johnson's works (they had previously released Johnson's "Love in Vain" on Let it Bleed in 1969), were the first in a long line of modern day blues inflected rock musicians to provide their interpretation of Johnson's original when they included it on their 1972 release Exile on Main Street. Other notable renditions include Lucinda Williams' "Stop Breaking Down" on her first album Ramblin' released in 1991; Jeff Healey Band's "Stop Breaking Down" on their 1995 album of tributes entitled Cover to Cover; a version of "Stop Breaking Down Blues" which was one of two B-side live tracks on ZZ-Top's 1996 single release of "What's Up With That" from their album Rythymeen; the White Stripes "Stop Breaking Down" on their self-titled first album released in 1999; Eric Clapton's version of "Stop Breaking Down Blues" on his Me and Mr. Johnson tribute album released in 2004; and finally the perhaps less well reknowned The Wentus Blues Band version of "Stop Breaking Down" on their Family Album, also released in 2004. In each case, the covers featured the respective artist's treatment of Johnson's first take lyrics.
Much like Robert Johnson, the Rolling Stones cut two takes of "Stop Breaking Down." The first was recorded during the Let it Bleed sessions at Olympic Studios in London, England in October 1970. Their second rendition of the tune was recorded at Nellcote in the Cote d'Azur region of France with the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio during Exile sessions in either July or October 1971. Despite efforts to source both of these cuts, the vintage of the track that made the album has not been determined, and may actually be an amalgamation of the two that was produced during the Sunset sessions in Los Angeles during March of 1972. Whereas the vocals in Robert Johnson's version were purely plaintive, Mick Jagger's youthful snarl carries a somewhat defensive tone. Ironically considering the disparate styles in the vocals, ABCKO Records, the Stones label back when Exile was recorded, ended up being the plaintiff in a copyright case that involved both of the Robert Johnson tracks ("Love in Vain" being the other). This case was settled in June 2000 in favor of Delta Haze records, which had acquired the rights to the Johnson versions from his estate for the 1991 Columbia Records box set release of the tunes.
The version of "Stop Breaking Down" that Phish played at Festival 8 was neither plaintive nor defensive; it was delivered with a swagger and a growl that perhaps belied the age difference between Johnson, Jagger, and McConnell at their respective moments of dropping the words. Although Phish stays true to the Stones version lyrically, gone are the slide guitar and harmonica that appear on Exile. In their place, the listener is treated to the soulful backing vocals of Sharon Jones and Saundra Williams and the cocksure raunch of Dave Guy's trumpet and Tony Jarvis' saxophone. In keeping with Johnson and the Stones double takes on "Stop Breaking Down," Phish is due for at least one more performance of this blues classic; one can only hope to be there when it happens.