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How Mick Jagger made the greatest blues album he's never released

Mick Jagger in 1992 and The Red Devils' Lester Butler in 1993
Mick Jagger in 1992 and The Red Devils' Lester Butler in 1993 (Image credit: Jeff Kravitz/ Frans Schellekens/Getty Images )

In the spring of 1992, Mick Jagger was in Los Angeles preparing his third solo album with Rick Rubin. Jagger’s two previous efforts outside of the Rolling Stones, 1985’s She’s The Boss and 1987’s Primitive Cool, had been little loved and fast forgotten.

He’d brought in Rubin to lend him some much-needed credibility. The producer had made his name piloting the Beastie Boys and Run DMC to international acclaim and was fresh from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ multiplatinum Blood Sugar Sex Magik album. 

Rubin was also working with an LA bar band called the Red Devils at the time, masterminding their debut album for his own Def American Recordings label. A fiery blues collective, the Devils had come to his attention playing a weekly residency at a poky LA club called the King King, a former Chinese restaurant on the corner of 6th and La Brea. 

As well as Rubin, the likes of ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, AC/DC’s Angus and Malcolm Young and actor Bruce Willis had been seen mingling with the regular Monday night crowd at the King King, won over by the Devils’ raw power, and in particular their charismatic frontman, Lester Butler, who blew a mean harmonica.

In May 1992, Rubin coaxed Jagger down to the King King to check out the Red Devils. Jagger was impressed enough get up and jam with them, performing blazing versions of Bo Diddley’s Who Do You Love?, which was a staple of the Stones’ early sets, and Little Walter’s Blues With A Feeling

Jagger seemed in his element, as though returned to his youth. The following month, Rubin took him and the Red Devils into Ocean Way Recording studios in Hollywood. 

“It was a one-day marathon,” recalled the Devils’ guitarist, Dave Lee Bartel. “We cut 13 tunes in 14 hours, all old blues songs, with Mick singing live.” 

These tracks were done in three or four takes, and among them were raucous renditions of blues standards like Muddy Waters’ Forty Days And Forty Nights and Bukka White’s Shake ’Em On Down. Jagger sounded as engaged as he’d been in years – his voice raw but impassioned – and Rubin left convinced he’d got his album in the can. 

In that respect, he was to be frustrated. Soon enough, Jagger determined that the Red Devils tracks sounded too rough for release and pursued a more commercial sound. He recruited high-priced session men such as keyboardist Benmont Tench and drummer Jim Keltner, spending months with Rubin honing a slicker set of songs. 

Released early the following year, Wandering Spirit went Gold in the US but it barely resonated. It would be Jagger’s last solo album of the 90s and he returned instead to the Stones’ bosom. 

Fate dealt the Red Devils a harder hand. Their Rubin-produced album, a live affair titled King King, won rave reviews but tanked. Ground down by Butler’s escalating substance abuse, they disbanded in 1994. Butler died of a heroin overdose in 1998, aged 38. 

The embers of that day at Ocean Way burn on, however, and the full session has been posted on YouTube. Jagger, though, has released just the one track from the session, popping a cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s Checkin’ Up On My Baby on to his 2007 Best Of…, and he shows no inclination to put out the rest. 

“There’s a side of me that thinks [that session] could’ve been so much better,” the Red Devils’ guitarist Paul ‘The Kid’ Size recalled. “On a couple of the songs, there was no groove. But then the others, man, they were rocking."