As many would agree, the Rolling Stones are the last group that anyone thought would still be alive, much less touring and still playing great. Yet, here they are in 2018 re-releasing “Ruby Tuesday” in its original mono version and touring Europe this summer. All I can say is, God bless them. They will probably remain active until one day they just ride off into the sunset like in one of the old cowboy movies.
The Stones have been my all time favorite band since I was seventeen years old. I learned how to play electric guitar listening and copying Keith Richards on those early albums. It’s probably what got me subliminally interested in the blues.
I had the pleasure of working with both Ronnie Wood and Keith during Ronnie’s solo albums on Columbia Records, the subsequent New Barbarians tour (funny story about that here), and later with the whole gang during the Dirty Work and Steel Wheels albums. Needless to say I was thrilled beyond belief as they and their music had meant so much to me growing up.
It should be noted that beyond the notorious rock and roll lifestyle they have led, these guys are consummate musicians, and their contributions to rock music, the way it’s played and way it sounds, are groundbreaking and iconic. Ronnie Wood is responsible for taking the electric rock and roll rhythm guitar to new heights adding his own dissonant notes to create more grit, and well…more roll after the rock part. Without getting too technical it’s what makes you tap your foot and wiggle your hips to the music. You can hear that rhythm style, long before his joining The Rolling Stones, in all the Faces music with Rod Stewart singing. There is a huge emphasis on the rhythm guitar on all those songs. He is also a multi-instrumentalist–plays bass, steel guitar, harmonica, piano, drums, etc., etc.—all very well, and sings great to boot.
Keith Richards’ five string tuning is legendary and so many of The Stones’ hits are based on that tuning. He also plays piano, sings, and is quite an accomplished acoustic guitar player as well. He is the rhythm engine of The Rolling Stones and when he and Ronnie work together “weaving” the two guitars, there’s nothing like it on the planet. Keith is known as the greatest rock and roll rhythm guitarist EVER, and uses both feel and space between the notes to make your foot tap and your body groove.
Charlie Watts’s timing as a drummer is so consistent that he has been compared to a clock. He not only plays rock and roll, adding that well-known backbeat to The Stones’ sound, but he plays great jazz as well. In fact, jazz was Charlie’s first love and he got his start playing in swing bands.
Mick Jagger is not only the most famous singer and front man in rock and roll, but he also plays guitar and harmonica, and one could argue interprets rock vocals on the same level that Sinatra interpreted his pop recordings. I mean who can say the word “B-aaayby” as good as Mick Jagger??! Answer: No one. And let’s not forget what great songwriters Mick and Keith are.
The Stones have always enjoyed a capable bass player and when I worked with them Bill Wyman was still in the band. He plays bass, sings, and also plays piano. It’s important to note his bass style, notes, and phrasings on all The Stones early pop songs were very much accented and added a lot of the personality to those hit records.
I won’t be talking about Brian Jones or Mick Taylor here, but again we are talking about stellar talent in both cases. My point is, even though some of my stories show the out-of-control side of the band, these guys are also very professional and have a huge work ethic, which is how they have achieved greatness.
Ronnie Wood is an interesting case. He is a very friendly person and quite approachable. In fact, the day I met him in the Columbia Records’ west coast offices in the mid 70’s, he came up to me and introduced himself before I could get across the room to do the same. “Hi, I’m Ronnie Wood,” as if somehow I wouldn’t know, given his legendary Bird Of Paradise hair-do and his familiar hard edged facial features. We hit it off immediately and became buddies. This would happen a lot to me in the music business being a guitar player myself. Get two guys starting to talk guitar and it never ends. And remember, even though these guys are celebrities, at the end of the day they are players first and foremost, and love talking shop just like anyone else. It was not uncommon for guys like Woody (nickname) or David Gilmour to throw their latest new guitar in my lap and say, “Hey Rap, Fender just sent me this, check it out.”
Ronnie is also very funny and fun, a real character. If you read his book you realize that he is the youngest brother of three, and a lot of his personality is just wanting to fit in, to be a part of something bigger, to be “seen,” and to be recognized as an equal. And he tries to make friends by being outgoing in that regard.
I first started to really get to know him in 1979 during his Gimme Some Neck solo album project. In fact, let’s take a break and rock out! Click on these two songs and crank it up! You will hear that rock and roll rhythm guitar that I am talking about.
“Come To Realize” (from Gimme Some Neck)
““We All Get Old” (from Gimme Some Neck)
When I went out on the road with The New Barbarians, a band put together by Wood to promote the new songs on the album featuring Keith Richards on the other guitar, Ian McLagan on keyboards, Bobby Keys on sax, Stanley Clarke on bass, and Zigaboo Modeliste on drums, I could see that Ronnie idolized Keith and wanted to be just like him, just like that little brother wanting to fit in. It was very cute to watch although on that tour being like Keith meant doing wayyyyyyy too many drugs. In fact, we all did, and after seven days on the road I called it quits and went home—I was clearly not in their league of being able to survive with all the stuff we were ingesting.
A bit of kiss and tell here: These guys had cocaine rocks as big as a small fist and the roadies would grind them up in green plastic professional laboratory medical grinders to a fine powder. I have never seen so much blow in my entire life. In fact, to tell the truth, I barely slept for seven days and nights. The New Barbarians tour was a giant party that traveled city to city on a private airplane. After each show we’d wind up back in a hotel room. A typical Stones atmosphere— cassettes laying about all over the place, women’s lingerie hanging on lampshades, music blaring, people dancing, and lines and lines of coke endlessly being poured onto the coffee table in front of the couches. At around 6:00AM, invariably someone would peak behind the curtains to see if the sun was coming up. If not, some other person would magically appear passing out reds (downers) to the crowd so they could return to their rooms and try and get some sleep. If indeed, the sun was rising, someone would yell, “Let’s stay up until the gig tonight!” And more coke and more grinders would appear. As for me, I thought all that speeding up to great heights and then taking a pill to counteract that would be a bit dangerous, so I just saved up all my reds, and opted to stare at the ceiling until I finally fell into a bit of a restless sleep for a few hours. I would wake up at 5:00PM not knowing if I was hungry or not, and if I was should I be eating dinner or breakfast??? Very disorienting. But in a few hours we’d be leaving for another show and the cycle would start all over again.
Keith Richards IS rock and roll, simple as that. He loves it, and lives the lifestyle—sleeping during the day–coming out at night, the whole nine yards. But he also can be a really great guy and fun to talk with about music and guitars. And he has no false airs about himself so when you talk with him it’s not like ‘I’m The Rolling Stone and you’re not,’ it’s more like two musicians really excited to share guitar secrets, which makes it especially fun. In fact, he gave me a great guitar lesson once that you can read about in a previous blog.
Mick is less jovial and mostly about business. Also very pleasant, he is another superstar that does not talk down to you—very refreshing. He has to be the more serious one because Keith just wants to play the guitar and make music—if there is no Mick Jagger running the show, there is no Rolling Stones, I can guarantee you that.
Here’s a funny story that kind of depicts all of their unique personalities in action.
I was backstage at Shea Stadium in New York for the Steel Wheels tour in the inner sanctum–you need like 4 levels of backstage passes and stickers to get into the private dressing rooms of The Rolling Stones. I had also brought my then eight and a half year old son Adam with me to meet the band and see the show. He had no clue who they were or what they meant, so he went off to eat a hot dog, play a pinball machine, and then a game of pool with Bill Wyman. If you would have told me in high school that one day I’d grow up, get married, have kids and that one would one-day be playing pool with Bill Wyman I would have thought you daft.
At the time I was the Vice President of the rock department for Columbia Records, really good at my job, and I successfully had kept the Steel Wheels album at #1 for over three consecutive months on the album rock charts. Not only that, I had figured out how to time the release of each new single to radio to debut at number one, replacing their previous track holding that same coveted position. That meant for over three months and over the release of three singles the Stones also held the number one slot on the rock tracks chart, effectively freezing out every other band or artist from going number one. The Steel Wheels album was hot, The Stones were on tour, we were bringing key radio execs and disk jockeys backstage to meet the band, and all was well—except for the fact that every other record label was up in arms because I was single handedly clogging up the number one slot with Rolling Stones singles and causing a roadblock stopping any of their other acts from reaching that heavily desired goal. A typical phone call from the head of promotion for Atlantic, Warner, or RCA Records would sound like this—(screaming at the top of their lungs) “ARE YOU DONE YET?? ARE YOU F*CKING DONE YET!!!!!!!!! How f*cking long are you going to play this game??!!! Our artist, Bon Jovi (substitute any rock name you like) was supposed to go to number one this week, but NOOOOOOO, you dropped another Stones’ single on the heels of their previous number one track and vois-F*cking-la, another Rolling Stones number one debut!!!” WHAT THE F*CK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I think watching the second single replace the first at that position had some people really upset but they all understood the power of The Stones, this particular album, and added strength of having the band on tour. But when I did it one more time with the third single, that was when people really lost their shit. I guess they thought this might go on for another six months! All I could counter with was, “Hey, it’s the Stones, it’s my job to do the best I can for them, and besides, I can’t help it—they’ve meant more to me than any other band in the world since I was seventeen years old.” CLICK, I would hear them hang up on me.
So here I was backstage to tell the lads the good news. The first band member I see is Ronnie Wood. “Hi Woody, I’m happy to tell you that I’ve managed to keep you guys at number one on both the album and singles charts for all three singles spanning almost four months!!”
I love Ronnie Wood, but he can be notoriously a little fried at times and a bit of a banana head. “Holy shit Rap!! That’s amaaaaazing!! I gotta go get Keith, you need to tell him this! Woody goes into Keith’s dressing room and brings him out. In the less than three minutes it took to get Keith, he has forgotten what I told him!! He knows it was something great, but he just can’t bring it forth to the top of his compromised memory banks. It was actually kind of cute and funny. “Hey Keith, Rap just told me…. He told me…” then he goes totally blank. “Rap! Tell Keith what you just told me!” I just shook my head and said, “Keith, I’m happy to report that I’ve managed to keep you guys at number one on both the album and singles charts for all three singles spanning almost four months!” Keith smiles a huge smile, turns me around, kicks me in the ass, turns me back around, gives me a super big hug, and asks, “Can you do it again??!”
“Naw, just be happy that you’ve been number one for your whole tour. If I do it again I’m gonna be run out of town on a rail, or possibly killed.”
“Well, it IS The Rolling Stones…” intimating that it might be worth giving up my life for. Then I got a wink, which hinted at ‘just kidding,’ kinda. I’m convinced these guys are pirates, just trapped in the modern age. Finally I got another smile and a “Thanks mate–means a lot.”
So, those are the two happy-go-lucky guys in the band and now I go to tell the same story to Mick.
Mick is not a happy-go-lucky kind of guy. He is, as I’ve said, very nice and very cordial, but the wheels are always turning and he’s mostly all business. I tell him exactly what I just told the other two. He looks at me quizzically and says, “That’s great, but you know I think we released that last twelve inch just about two weeks early—don’t you think?” I’m used to this, but I’m thinking, ‘gee whiz Mick, number one for almost four months! How about a smile?’ So, I say, “Gee whiz Mick, number one for almost four months!! Who gives a shit about the twelve inch?! How’s about a little smile?!” I mimic a smile on my face with my fingers pulling up both corners of my mouth. He caves a bit gives me a little smile and says, “Yeah, I know, I know and it’s great I’m just saying…”and he continues with the more serious discussion. That’s just Mick being Mick.
I was surprised at how many of their decisions revolved solely around money. Regardless of who might get burned, if the money was right they took it—pirates I tell you! Ha, ha. Somebody gave Mick a half million dollars for a clothing line with his name on it. At the time I thought that would hurt his image, make him seem less cool. The clothing line sucked, it was awful. It gained little momentum, no one cared either way, and that was that. Mick also sold the radio rights for one live broadcast from the tour to ABC Networks. At the time I used to customize the coordination of such broadcasts to air on all the rock stations who were our friends, the stations that played the most of the Steel Wheels album in this case. But nope, ABC ponied up another half mill, and that was that thank you very much. I told both Mick and Keith that this was bad business as they would wind up burning some of their radio friends who had really supported them over the years because some of those stations were not ABC affiliates and wouldn’t be allowed to carry the show. They said it was just business and to let it go. For many years The Rolling Stones were victims of bad record deals and had also been ripped off in publishing deals, etc., etc. Many folks don’t know that part of their history, so I just figured in their minds it was like, this is our time—let’s collect like there’s no tomorrow.
And in 1989, who knew if there was ever going to be a tomorrow? At that time I’m sure they could have never predicted all the albums and tours that were yet to come.
Before we left backstage to go out front and watch the show I introduced Adam to Keith. This was a big moment for me. “Adam, this is the greatest rock and roll guitar player of all time.” Keith looks down and says, “Don’t believe everything your old man tells you.” I ask Keith if he’ll take a photo with us. He says sure, and then says to me, “Hey, we should kneel down, because your son is still pretty small.” I thought, how sensitive and what a nice gesture, he really cared and wanted us to have a nice photo. That’s a sweet part of Keith Richards’ personality that folks should know about.
As we were leaving backstage and I asked Adam what his favorite part about the visit was—the food, the pinball games, playing pool with The Rolling Stones? He looks up and says, “Keith’s skull ring dad, that’s the coolest thing ever!” Ha, ha! That’s my boy!
“Mixed Emotions” (live from the Tokyo Dome — Steel Wheels Tour)
Until next time, ‘Its only rock and roll, but I like it!’
© Paul Rappaport 2018