Thursday, August 18, 2005

Forgotten Hero III - Ian Stewart

One of the founding members of the Rolling Stones, Ian Stewart lost his place in the lineup after the band’s manager determined that Stewart, with his pronounced jaw line and thick, brushed-back hair, didn’t look the part. But he stayed with the band for the rest of his life as road manager and occasional boogie-woogie pianist. It was always his band, even before he persuaded the fledgling group to hire Charlie Watts as drummer.

“This is probably how I can illustrate, more than anything about the Rolling Stones, that Stu is absolute numero uno, that it’s his band,” writes Keith Richards in a new book about Stewart, “because he angled for Charlie Watts.”

Lovingly referred to as the sixth stone, pianist Ian Stewart was actually a founding member of the original group, pre-dating both Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman as members. Stewart, or Stu as he was called, was one of a core group of rhythm and blues enthusiasts that frequented Alexis Korner's blues club. Among the others were Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Dick Taylor and Keith Richards, figures who would all go on to have a profound effect on rock n' roll music. Adept at boogie woogie style piano, Stewart began rehearsing with fellow enthusiasts Brian Jones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. When bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts joined, the group named themselves the Rolling Stones and began attracting a small but loyal following in London.

After manager Andrew Loog Oldham took over the reigns of the Stones' career he deemed Stewart unfit for the group because the straight-laced Stewart didn't "have the right look." Thankfully for the rest of the band Stu agreed to stay on as their road manager and sometime piano player. Throughout the groups career Stu contributed his Chicago style piano playing to several of the Stones releases including December's Children, Aftermath and Let it Bleed among others. The gifted keyboardist also lent his hand to projects outside The Stones such as the London Howlin' Wolf sessions, Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti and Pete Townshend's Rough Mix album.

Adored by all who knew him, Stewart's uncompromisingly purist stance towards the blues (he refused to play piano on "Wild Horses" because minor chords offended him aesthetically) helped keep the Stones on a stayed course during the times when they were in real danger of losing their core sound. Ian Stewart died in 1985 before he could have a chance to be inducted into the rock n' roll hall of fame beside his beloved Rolling Stones.

“So you come to one of the most amazing parts about Ian Stewart,” says guitarist Richards. “All he did was turn round and say ‘I understand that.’ He just sort of took a gentleman’s step back. ... That’s the heart of a lion man to be able to do that.” Throughout the band’s career, Stewart added an undercurrent of barrelhouse piano that gave the Stones a distinctive sound, on records and in concert. He never played on songs he didn’t like. “Stu would decide what songs he wanted to play on and what he didn’t, and there was nobody in the band to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay,’ “ says Richards.

His playing dots all the Stones’ recordings. He added piano to the band’s original, “Tell Me,” and organ on the early hit “It’s All Over Now.” He cut “2120 South Michigan Avenue,” essentially an organ instrumental, with the band during its first U.S. tour at the Chess Records studio in Chicago. His piano can barely be heard on “Brown Sugar,” but his keyboard ripples on “Let It Bleed” drive the song through the verses. He played on “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” and the Chuck Berry takeoff, “Star Star,” from the “Goats Head Soup” album.

He ran the Rolling Stones mobile studio for years and wound up sitting in with other British rock aristocracy, including some Ronnie Lane sessions and a memorable occasion with Led Zeppelin -- he overdubbed the piano on “Rock and Roll” -- commemorated by the track “Boogie With Stu.” In 1981, he produced (and played a little piano on) a live record by Rocket 88, a celebration of authentic jump band boogie-woogie, largely a showcase for for pianist Bob Hall and saxophonist Hal “Cornbread” Singer, that undoubtedly reflected his own musical sensibilities more completely than any of the Stones albums ever did.

But Stewart’s lasting legacy to the Stones runs much deeper than his musical contributions. He was the conscience of the Stones, the only person who could always talk to everyone and a lasting reminder of the band’s essential values. His funeral was said to be the first public occasion where Mick Jagger cried.

“I can’t imagine the Rolling Stones without Stu,” says former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor.
“The Rolling Stones are Ian Stewart’s band,” Richards says.


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