Mick Jagger (vocals; born July 26, 1943); Keith Richards (guitar, vocals; born December 18, 1943); Ian Stewart (piano; born July 18, 1938, died December 12, 1985); Charlie Watts (drums; born June 2, 1941); Bill Wyman (bass; born October 24, 1936); Brian Jones (guitar, vocals; born February 28, 1942, died July 3, 1969); Mick Taylor (guitar; born January 17, 1949); Ron Wood (guitar, vocals; born June 1, 1947)
Little did the Rolling Stones know how apt their name – inspired by the title of a Muddy Waters song, “Rollin’ Stone” – would turn out to be. Formed in 1962, they hold the record for longevity as a rock and roll band. There have been hiatuses, especially in the 1980s, but never a breakup. Moreover, critical acclaim and popular consensus has accorded them the title of the “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.” Throughout five decades of shifting tastes in popular music, the Stones have kept rolling, adapting to the latest styles without straying from their roots as a lean, sinuous rock and roll band with roots in electric blues. In all aspects, theirs has been a remarkable career.
The Rolling Stones’ origins date back to the boyhood friendship of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, forged in 1951. Their acquaintance was interrupted when both families moved in the mid-Fifties but got rekindled in October 1960, when the two ran into each other at a train station and Richards noticed the imported R&B albums Jagger was carrying under his arm. Jagger, a student at the London School of Economics, was a hardcore blues aficionado, while Richards’ interest leaned more toward Chuck Berry-style rock and roll. Richards soon joined Jagger’s group, Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys.
While making the rounds of London blues clubs, Jagger and Richards met guitarist Brian Jones, a member of Blues Incorporated (fronted by Alexis Korner, a key figure in the early London blues-rock scene). They had been knocked out by Jones’ slide-guitar work on his solo reading of Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom.” (Jones actually employed the pseudonym “Elmo Lewis.”) Soon, the trio of Jagger, Richards and Jones became roommates and musical collaborators.
Keith Richards has been clear about whose band it was in the beginning: “Brian was really fantastic, the first person I ever heard playing slide electric guitar,” Richards said in Stone Alone: The Story of a Rock ’n’ Roll Band, by bassist Bill Wyman. “Mick and I both thought he was incredible. He mentioned he was forming a band. He could have easily joined another group, but he wanted to form his own. The Rolling Stones was Brian’s baby.”
When Alexis Korner skipped one of his regular Marquee gigs to appear on a BBC radio show, Jagger, Jones and Richards seized the opportunity to debut their new group. And so it came to pass that the earliest version of the Rolling Stones – which also included bassist Dick Taylor (later a founding member and guitarist for the Pretty Things), drummer Mick Avory (a future member of the Kinks) and keyboardist Ian Stewart (the Stones’ lifelong road manager and adjunct member) – made their first public appearance on July 12, 1962.
The Rolling Stones landed an eight-month residency at the Crawdaddy Club, where they attracted a following of fans and fellow musicians. By that time, the group’s final lineup had been set, with founding members Jagger, Richards and Jones augmented by drummer Charlie Watts (a Blues Incorporated alumnus) and bassist Bill Wyman. They also took on a young manager-producer, Andrew Loog Oldham, who saw in the Stones a chance to exploit “the opposite to what the Beatles are doing.” Indeed, the Stones would come to epitomize the darker, bluesier and more boldly sexual side of rock and roll in a kind of ongoing counterpoint with the Beatles’ sunnier, more pop-oriented vistas.
In May 1963 the Rolling Stones signed to Decca Records and cut their first single. With a Chuck Berry-penned A side (“Come On”) and a Willie Dixon cover on the flip (“I Want to Be Loved”), this 45 set forth the rock/blues dichotomy whose eventual melding in the Jagger/Richards songwriting team would come to define the Stones’ sound and sensibility. Their second single, “I Wanna Be Your Man,” was provided to them by the Lennon/McCartney songwriting tandem, proving from the outset that there no hostilities existed between the Beatles and the Stones. However, a spirit of friendly competition would serve each band well throughout the Sixties. The first half of 1964 saw the Rolling Stones headline their first British tour (with the Ronettes) and release the single “Not Fade Away” (a powerfully retooled Buddy Holly cover) and their eponymous first album, retitled England’s Newest Hitmakers/The Rolling Stones for U.S. release.
The Rolling Stones’ commercial breakthrough came in mid-1964 with their swinging, country-blues rendition of the Valentinos' “It’s All Over Now” (written by Bobby Womack and Shirley Womack) which went to Number One on the British chart and just missed the U.S. Top 40. But it was in 1965 that the Stones discovered their own voice with the singles “The Last Time” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The last of these, built around a compelling fuzztone guitar riff from Richards, is more than a standard; quite possibly it is the all-time greatest rock and roll song. It also captured the Stones’ surly, impolite attitude, which would bring them into disfavor with rock-hating elements in the establishment. Of course, that only made the group more appealing to those youthful listeners who found themselves estranged from the adult world.
Aftermath, released in April 1966, was the first Rolling Stones album to consist entirely of Jagger-Richards originals. Their hard-rocking British pop songs detailed battles between sexes, classes and generations. The contributions of Brian Jones, the one-time blues purist, were now key to the Stones’ more eclectic approach, as he colored the songs with embellishments on a variety of instruments including marimba ("Under My Thumb") and dulcimer ("Lady Jane"). The group’s subsequent singles further pushed the envelope of outrage, which the Stones were learning to work to their benefit. “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow” was a pounding rocker whose picture sleeve depicted the Stones in drag, while “Let’s Spend the Night Together” engendered controversy in the States for the bluntly sexual come-on of its title and lyrics.
At mid-decade, the three pre-eminent forces in popular music were the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. They mutually influenced one another, and aspects of Dylan’s folk-rock and the Beatles’ similar turn in that direction with Rubber Soul were clearly evident on the Stones’ Between the Buttons, which appeared in 1967. It remains the group’s most baroque and understated recording. After the release of Flowers, an album that compiled stray tracks for the American market, the Stones unleashed the bombastic psychedelia of Their Satanic Majesties Request. It was the group’s portentous retort to the Beatles’ "Summer of Love" manifesto, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It also marked the last time that the Stones would blatantly shadow the Beatles in a stylistic sense.
The year 1967 was an eventful one for the Rolling Stones. Not only did they release three albums, but also they were beset with legal troubles stemming from a string of drug busts engineered by British authorities wanting to make an example of them. When the dust cleared, Jagger, Richards and Jones narrowly escaped draconian prison sentences. However, whereas the ordeal seemed to strengthen Jagger and Richards’ resolve, ongoing substance abuse was rapidly causing Jones’ physical and mental states to disintegrate. He was only marginally involved in sessions for Beggar’s Banquet, the Stones’ 1968 masterpiece, and his departure due to “musical differences” was announced on June 9, 1969. Less than a month later, Jones was found dead in his swimming pool, the official cause being given as “death by misadventure.”
His replacement was Mick Taylor, an alumnus of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, who made his debut with the Stones only days after Jones’ death at a free concert in London’s Hyde Park. With a crowd of more than 500,000, the enormous outdoor concert launched the Stones’ 1969 tour while also paying last respects to Jones. By this time, the Stones had returned to definitive, hard-hitting rock and roll. The string of muscular Stones classics from this period includes “Jumpin' Jack Flash,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Gimme Shelter” and “Midnight Rambler.” The last two songs came from Let It Bleed, an album filled with violence, decadence and social cataclysm. Perhaps the all-time classic Stones album, Let It Bleed debuted on the U.S. charts at Number Three, behind the Beatles’ Abbey Road and Led Zeppelin II. While the counterculture foundered, the music scene remained unassailably strong as the Sixties drew to a close.
As the Beatles’ final chapters were being written, the Stones shifted into high gear. If the former group expressed the heady idealism of the pop Sixties, then the Stones, by contrast, were blues-steeped, hard-rocking realists. It was them to whom the baton passed at the close of the decade. The Rolling Stones staged a free concert at Altamont Speedway outside San Francisco on December 6, 1969, mere months after Woodstock. The episode literally and figuratively marked the end the Sixties. A violence-prone, drug-wracked, daylong nightmare for which Hell’s Angels provided security, Altamont was marred by the stabbing death of a concert attendee. The event, viewed in hindsight as an epitaph, was filmed and preserved in the unnerving documentary Gimme Shelter.
In 1970, the Stones launched their own record company, Rolling Stones Records, for which they signed a distribution deal with Atlantic Records. The initial releases on the new label were Sticky Fingers and its raunchy, rocking first single, “Brown Sugar.” With a cover designed by artist Andy Warhol that featured a working zipper, Sticky Fingers benefited from guitarist Taylor’s melodic touch, especially on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and “Moonlight Mile.” British designer John Pasche came up with the famous red “tongue” logo that remains a Stones icon to this day.
They followed this succinct, well-tuned work with a sprawling, raucous masterpiece: the double album Exile on Main St. At this point, the Stones’ had their fingers firmly on the pulse of the fractured mood of the early Seventies. Recorded in France, where they’d moved as British tax exiles, the album also reflected the group’s internal yin-yang in grainy aural black-and-white: bristling musical energy vs. heavy-lidded world-weariness, love of rock vs. loyalty to the blues, the downward pull of decadence vs. a dogged effort to capture the moment. They took this juggernaut on the road shortly after Exile’s release.
Subsequent albums – Goats Head Soup (1973), It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (1974) and Black and Blue (1976) – yielded solid individual songs but lacked their predecessors’ sustained brilliance. Various factors, including Richards’ drug problems and Taylor’s abrupt departure in 1974, contributed to an air of instability in the mid-Seventies. Even so, Jagger and Richards were now firmly bonded as the “Glimmer Twins” – a name that they used as their joint production credit on albums from It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll onward. Ron Wood, a member of the Faces and Rod Stewart’s frequent collaborator and accompanist, was chosen as Taylor’s replacement for the Stones’ 1975 tour. He became an official member by the time of Black and Blue, appearing on that album's cover (even though he’d only actually played on a few of its tracks). Wood’s selection made perfect sense, as he was a British rock and roller who fit in solidly alongside Richards.
Richards’ arrest in Toronto on drug charges, including heroin possession, didn’t stop them from playing their scheduled club dates at Toronto’s El Mocombo club, excerpts from which appeared on one side of the double album Love You Live. The fallout from the bust would be 18 months of legal limbo, as Richards faced up to seven years in prison if convicted. (He was ultimately ordered to perform a benefit concert for the blind as his sentence.) Richards beat his heroin addiction during this period, “closing down the laboratory,” in his words.
With Wood’s integration into the lineup, and driven by the insurgent challenge of punk-rock, the Stones rebounded in 1978 with Some Girls, their strongest effort since Exile On Main St. The cover and certain lyrics proved controversial, with the title track eliciting charges of sexism, and the songs paid heed to musical trends, including unmistakably Stonesy takes on disco ("Miss You") and punk-rock ("Shattered"). Some Girls remains among the group’s best-selling albums, having been certified six times platinum (6 million copies sold) by the RIAA.
The Eighties saw the Stones achieve their highest-charting album (Tattoo You, Number One for nine weeks in 1981) but also take the longest period between tours (eight years). They kicked off the decade with Emotional Rescue, which included straight-ahead rockers like “She Was Hot,” as well as curveballs like the falsetto-sung title track. Tattoo You, highlighted by the instant classics “Start Me Up” and “Waiting on a Friend,” remains among the most revered of all late-period Stones albums. Undercover, from 1983, took a more contemporary tack, especially on the outre, New Wavish single “Undercover of the Night.”
At mid-decade, Jagger launched a solo career with the release of She’s the Boss. A growing estrangement between Jagger and Richards culminated in a three-year lull after the release of Dirty Work (1986), during which another solo release from Jagger (Primitive Cool) and Richards’ own solo debut (Talk Is Cheap) were released. The standoff ended when Jagger and Richards resumed their working relationship during a 10-day songwriting retreat in Barbados, resulting in the creative resurgence of the Steel Wheels album and tour.
Bassist Bill Wyman, increasingly suffering from fear of flying, announced his retirement from the band after the Steel Wheels tour, in 1992. “I did everything but hold him at gunpoint,” said Richards of his efforts to keep him in the band.” After auditioning many musicians, the Stones picked Darryl Jones – who’d played with various jazz, funk and soul musicians – to take over on bass. The Stones released two albums of new music in the Nineties, Voodoo Lounge (for which they won a Grammy for Best Rock Album) and Bridges to Babylon. Between those albums, they re-recorded a batch of classic older songs in the then-popular “unplugged” format, released at mid-decade as Stripped. Their three tours during this busy decade were the best-attended and most lucrative live outings in rock history to that point in time.
In 2002, the Rolling Stones issued Forty Licks, a double-disc retrospective that appended four new tracks. Their 40th anniversary tour followed that same year. In 2005 came A Bigger Bang, their only studio album of new material in the decade. The Stones’ primary activity came on the touring front, as their two-year A Bigger Bang World Tour set a new record (more than $550 million) for concert grosses. Not even a serious head injury sustained by Richards during a fall from a coconut palm in Fiji could stop the juggernaut for long.
The Stones celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2012. They released yet another greatest-hits album, GRRR! The album included two new tracks, "Doom and Gloom" and "One More Shot." On October 25, they played a surprise show to about 600 people in Paris. In November 2012, the group played two shows at London's The 02 Arena, and in December, they performed at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and the Prudential Center in New Jersey. The Stones were joined on stage by Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman for these gigs. The band also joined artists including the Who, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney for "12-12-12," the Concert for Sandy Relief at Madison Square Garden.
Through their five decades as a band, no one has yet stripped the Rolling Stones of their title as the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band. In 2002, Keith Richards had this to say in USA Today about the group’s improbable longevity: “People thought it couldn’t be done. We never thought of trying it. We are just here. It’s a vague mission you can’t give up until you keel over.”