Keith Richards - Biography
Guitarist-songwriter-singer Keith Richards is, now and forever, a Rolling Stone. Since he co-founded the group (as The Rollin’ Stones) in 1962, Richards has devoted the lion’s share of his creative energies to the group. But his career has also been marked by a wealth of activity as a sideman, dueting with or supporting performers as diverse as John Lee Hooker, Willie Nelson, Bo Diddley, Tom Waits, Peter Tosh, Scotty Moore, Bobby Womack, The Chieftains, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and George Jones, to name just a few. Moreover, from the late ‘80s into the ‘90s, he channeled his impatience with the Stones’ relative inactivity into some rewarding and entertaining work under his own name.
Richards was born in Dartford, Kent, outside of London, on Dec. 18, 1943. At the age of 5, he became a schoolmate of the Stones’ future lead singer Mick Jagger. Encouraged by his grandfather, a musician, he took up the guitar as he entered his teens. In 1960 or ’61, he fatefully re-encountered Jagger, who was carrying albums by Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, in the Dartford train station. The two aspiring young musicians soon assembled a group from members of the burgeoning blues/R&B scene then developing out of London’s trad jazz community.
The Rolling Stones’ long and extensive history is dealt with more extensively elsewhere. Jagger may be the lead voice of the band, but the elegantly wasted Richards – “Keef” to his fans -- has always been cherished as the heart and soul of this long-lived rock institution. In the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s, he sang lead on several of the Stones’ most memorable tracks – “You Got the Silver,” from Let It Bleed (1969); “Happy,” from Exile On Main St (1972); “Before They Make Me Run,” from Some Girls (1978).
The Stones had been in business for more than 15 years before Richards issued his first solo single, on the band’s Rolling Stones Records imprint in 1979. Appropriately, the A side was “Run Rudolph Run,” a cover of his avatar Chuck Berry’s 1958 Christmas song; the flip side was a version of “The Harder They Come,” the title song from Jimmy Cliff’s myth-making 1972 reggae movie. Both tracks anticipated future developments in Richards’ solo career.
In 1979, Richards briefly served as a member of a band other than The Rolling Stones. He had recently played on sessions for Stones lead guitarist Ron Wood’s solo album Gimme Some Neck (1979). With no Stones tour in the offing, Wood and Richards organized an ad hoc band, The New Barbarians, which included several of the players who had also appeared on Wood’s LP. The members included longtime Stones saxophone sideman Bobby Keys, keyboardist Ian McLagan of The Faces, jazz bassist Stanley Clarke, and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste of New Orleans’ The Meters.
The New Barbarians began a brief North American tour of fewer than 20 dates outside Toronto on April 22, 1979; on that occasion the group was co-billed with the Stones (making a one-off appearance), and the show was a benefit for the blind, mandated by a Canadian court following Richards’ 1977 arrest and subsequent conviction for heroin possession. Wood and Richards split the lead vocal duties at the Barbarians’ shows. The only official document of the tour, Buried Alive: Live in Maryland (2006), was belatedly issued on Wood’s own label, Wooden Records.
Richards’ next major musical venture outside the Stones began as a labor of love, but turned into something of a nightmare. In 1986 – not long after cutting a version of the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” with Aretha Franklin -- he signed on as musical director for a 60th birthday concert for Chuck Berry. The show, starring Berry, would be mounted at the opulent Fox Theatre in St. Louis, Berry’s hometown, and filmed for a theatrical feature by director Taylor Hackford. Richards, whose admiration for the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer knew few bounds, repaid his musical debt to his idol – whose “Come On” was covered by the Stones on their debut single -- by assembling a top-flight backup band, including Berry’s original pianist Johnnie Johnson, and a roster of guest stars that included Eric Clapton, Etta James, Linda Ronstadt, and Robert Cray.
Unfortunately, the guest of honor created a world of problems for his long-suffering bandleader. Obstreperous, mistrustful, and seeking control of any situation, Berry warred constantly with Richards over everything from his amplifier volume to the arrangements and keys of certain songs. Hackford’s cameras captured every combative moment. The resultant film, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll (1987), is among the most revealing rockumentaries; MCA Records issued a companion soundtrack album.
Working with his greatest musical inspiration took its toll, but, as Richards later told writer Stanley Booth, “If I hadn’t played on the Chuck Berry thing, I don’t think I would have had the balls to do the solo record. If was only through doing that and realizing, hell, if I can face that and handle that…”
In 1986, the Stones released Dirty Work. Richards and Jagger soon came to loggerheads over Jagger’s plans to make a solo album and tour, not with the Stones, but with a band of his own. The longtime collaborators were soon sniping at one another in the press, and they would not reconcile for two years. In 1987, Richards retaliated against Jagger by signing a solo recording contract of his own with Virgin Records and assembling a group of his own, the X-Pensive Winos – drummer (and co-producer) Steve Jordan, bassist Charlie Drayton, keyboardist Ivan Neville, and guitarist Waddy Wachtel.
Richards’ solo debut Talk is Cheap (1988) arrived as a tonic for listeners who had found The Rolling Stones’ recent records uninvolving. The album, which featured Richards’ hoarse, warm lead vocals and clanging, familiar rhythm and lead guitar work, was a collection of hard-riffing new originals (which included a pointed shot at Jagger, “You Don’t Move Me”). The set reached the top 25 in the US. The X-Pensive Winos supported the album with a loudly received US tour; a typical date, with the band augmented by vocalist Sara Dash and saxophonist Bobby Keys, was later issued as Live at the Hollywood Palladium, December 15, 1988 (1991).
By late 1988, Jagger and Richards were speaking again, and in 1989 the regrouped Rolling Stones released an album, Steel Wheels, that was largely seen as a strong return to form. After a protracted world tour behind that release by the Stones and a subsequent layoff from ensemble work, Richards was bitten by the solo bug again and reunited with the X-Pensive Winos. Co-produced by Richards, Jordan, and Wachtel, Main Offender (1992) was a more bottom-heavy excursion into riff-happy rock and (on the track “Words of Wonder”) stormy roots reggae.
In 1995, the music of Jamaica supplied the impetus for Richards’ most recent major side project. Richards visited Jamaica, where he had maintained a home on and off from the early ‘70s, and became reacquainted with a group of ardent Rastafarian musicians (or nyabinghi), the best known of whom was island star Justin Hinds, who made their home in the hills outside the town of Ocho Rios. Setting up a mobile recording unit in his house, Richards recorded the musicians chanting and drumming, and supplied subdued guitar work on some of the tracks. This obscure yet hypnotic documentary-style collection of devotional music was issued on the independent label Mindless as Wingless Angels (1997). Richards has since released his autobiography, simply titled Life.