The Rolling Stones are an English rock band whose blues and rhythm and blues-infused music propelled them to the heights of popularity during the “British Invasion” in the early 1960s. They went on to become the longest-lived major rock band in history, and one of the most successful.
Originally formed in London in 1962 by Brian Jones, the band was later led by the songwriting partnership of singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards. Drummer Charlie Watts, and bassist Bill Wyman completed the early lineup. Jones died in 1969 shortly after being fired from the band, and a number of personnel changes have followed over the band’s long career. Known as rock and roll’s “bad boys” in contrast to the Beatles’ relatively unthreatening demeanor, their unkempt and surly image is one that many musicians still emulate.
Named after a blues song by Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones have released more than 50 albums of original work and compilations and have had 32 UK and U.S. top-ten singles, selling more than 200 million albums worldwide. In 1971, Sticky Fingers began a string of eight consecutive studio albums that reached number one in the United States. In 1989, “The Stones” were inducted into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2004 they were ranked number four in Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
In 1951, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were classmates at Wentworth County Junior High School in England. They met again in 1960 while Richards was attending Sidcup Art College. With mutual friend Dick Taylor (later of Pretty Things), they formed the band, Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys. Meanwhile, Stones founders Brian Jones, and pianist Ian Stewart were active in the London R&B scene fostered by Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner. Jagger and Richards met Jones when Jones was playing slide guitar sitting in with Korner’s Blues Inc. Korner had also periodically hired Jagger and future Stones drummer Charlie Watts.
The band’s first rehearsal was organized by Brian Jones. It included Stewart, Jagger, and Richards, who came along at Jagger’s invitation. In June 1962, the lineup was Jagger, Richards, Stewart, Jones, Taylor, and drummer Tony Chapman. Jones soon renamed the band, The Rolling Stones, after the song “Rollin’ Stone” by Muddy Waters.
On July 12, 1962, the group played its first formal “gig” at the Marquee club in central London, featuring Jagger, Richards, Jones, Stewart on piano, Taylor on bass, and Tony Chapman on drums. Jones intended for the band to play primarily Chicago blues, but Jagger and Richards brought the rock and roll of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley to the band. Taylor soon left the group. Bassist Bill Wyman joined in December and drummer Charlie Watts the following January to form the Stones’ long standing rhythm section.
The group’s first EP, The Rolling Stones and album (titled England’s Newest Hit Makers in the U.S.), were composed primarily of covers drawn from the band’s live repertoire. A notable hit from the album was the band’s first top-40 single written by Jagger and Richards, “Tell Me (You’re Coming Back),” backed by the Willie Dixon-penned “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” which had earlier been an R & B hit for Muddy Waters. After signing with Decca Records, the Stones began touring the UK and Europe. On their first tour of England, they were billed with American stars including Ike and Tina Turner, Bo Diddley, The Ronettes, The Everly Brothers, and Little Richard. The first tour also cemented the Stones’ shift from a rhythm-and-blues band to more of a pop band, resulting in a reduction in the number of blues songs the band played live.
The Rolling Stones’ first UK chart-topper was the cover of “It’s All Over Now” in June 1964. The UK album, The Rolling Stones No. 2 (The Rolling Stones, Now! in the United States), released in 1965, reached number one in the UK and number five in the U.S. It contained mainly cover tunes but was augmented by songs composed by Jagger and Richards.
During their first American tour in 1964, the Stones began years of recording at American Chess Studios in Chicago and RCA Studios in Los Angeles. The Stones’ version of “Little Red Rooster,” another Willie Dixon composition that had earlier been released by Howlin’ Wolf, went to number one in the UK, but was temporarily banned in the U.S. because of its sexually suggestive lyrics about sexual impotency.
The Stones also appeared on American variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan reacted negatively to the pandemonium cause by the Stones and vowed to never host them again, although he later booked them repeatedly. They also played on the The Hollywood Palace where host Dean Martin made fun of their longish hair, which was considered provocative. In October, the band appeared immediately after James Brown in the filmed theatrical release of The T.A.M.I. Show, which showcased American acts with “British Invasion” artists.
Although the Stones successfully rode the British Invasion wave initiated by the Beatles, manager Andrew Loog Oldham crafted the band’s image to be the Beatles’ opposite, projecting a tough, bluesy, and more overtly sexual image.
The first Jagger/Richards composition to reach number one in the UK was “The Last Time” in early 1965, based on a gospel song of the same name and featuring a memorable fuzz-tone riff by Jones. The U.S. version of that year’s Out of Our Heads LP contained seven original songs, including the smash hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” It became the band’s signature song, as well as its first number one in the US, where it remained for four weeks in July and established the Stones as a worldwide premier act.
Shortly thereafter, the group released its second US number one single, “Get Off of My Cloud.” Out of Our Heads and the U.S.-only released December’s Children were also the last Stones albums to feature cover songs predominantly. Aftermath (UK number one; US number two) in the spring of 1966 was the first Stones album to be composed only of Jagger/Richards songs. The American version of the LP included the chart-topping, Middle Eastern-influenced “Paint It, Black,” the ballad “Lady Jane,” and the almost 12-minute long “Going Home,” the first extended jam on a top-selling rock-and-roll album.
January 1967 saw the release of Between the Buttons (UK number three; U.S. number two). The U.S. version included the double A-side single of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Ruby Tuesday.” When the Stones again performed the former on The Ed Sullivan Show, Jagger was forced to mumble the song’s lyrics and change the chorus to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” due to the threat of censorship.
In December 1967, the Stones released Their Satanic Majesties Request (UK number three; U.S. two), released shortly after the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Jagger was a strong advocate of the psychedelic sound of the album, but rarely have any songs from the record been played live. It also marked the first time the Stones produced their own album.
By early 1968, the Stones had acquired Allen Klein as their new manager. The band spent the first few months of the year compiling material for their next album. These sessions resulted in the song “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” released as a single in May. The song, and the resulting album, Beggars Banquet (UK number three; U.S. five), marked the band’s return to its blues roots with new producer Jimmy Miller. Featuring the album’s lead single “Street Fighting Man” and the opening track “Sympathy for the Devil,” Beggars Banquet was another eclectic mix of country and blues-inspired tunes and was hailed as a major achievement for the Stones at the time of its release. During this time, Richards started using open tunings, most prominently a 5-string open-G tuning, as heard on the 1969 single, “Honky Tonk Women,” “Brown Sugar” (Sticky Fingers, 1971), “Tumbling Dice,” “Happy,” (Exile on Main St., 1972), and “Start Me Up” (Tattoo You, 1981). Open tunings lead to the Stones’ (and Richards’) later trademark guitar sound.
By the release of Beggars Banquet, Brian Jones’ drug problems had resulted in increasingly sporadic contributions to the band’s recordings. He was also unable to obtain a U.S. visa. The other band members agreed to let Jones go. His replacement was the 21-year-old guitarist Mick Taylor of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, who started recording with the band immediately. On July 3, 1969, less than a month later, Jones drowned in the pool at his Cotchford Farm home in Sussex.
Despite the death of Jones two days previously, a scheduled concert in London’s Hyde Park went ahead in front of an estimated 250,000 fans. Jagger read an excerpt from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s elegy Adonais and released thousands of butterflies in memory of Jones.
The release of Let It Bleed (UK number one; U.S. three) came in December. Their last album of the 1960s, Let It Bleed featured “Gimme Shelter,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Midnight Rambler,” as well as a cover of blues legend Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain.” Most of these songs became part of the live show for the resulting tour of America, their first in three years. The tour culminated with the band’s staging of the Altamont Free Concert, at the disused Altamont Speedway, east of San Francisco. The concert grew ugly and turned into a disaster, due in part to the hiring of the Hell’s Angels to undertake security, as a fan was stabbed and beaten to death by the Angels. The tour and the Altamont concert were documented in Albert and David Maysles’ film Gimme Shelter. As a response to the growing popularity of bootleg recordings of the concert, the live album Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! (UK number one; U.S. number six) was released in 1970.
When the band’s 1963 contract with Decca Records ended, the Stones formed their own record company, Rolling Stones Records. With several cuts recorded at Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studio during the 1969 American tour, Sticky Fingers (UK number one; U.S. number one), released in March 1971, contains one of the band’s best known hits, “Brown Sugar.”
Following the release of Sticky Fingers, the Stones left England after allegations by the UK Inland Revenue service of unpaid income tax. The band moved to the South of France where Richards rented a chateau, Villa Nellcôte, and sublet rooms to band members and entourage. Using mobile studio, they continued recording sessions that stretched as far back as 1969. The recordings were finished at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles by the band. The resulting double album, Exile on Main St. (UK number one; U.S. number one), was released in May 1972.
In November 1972, the band began sessions in Kingston, Jamaica for their follow-up to Exile, Goats Head Soup (UK number one; U.S. number one) (1973). The album spawned the worldwide hit “Angie,” but proved to be the first in a string of commercially successful, but tepidly received studio albums. The sessions for Goats Head Soup led to a number of outtakes, most notably an early version of the popular ballad “Waiting on a Friend,” not released until Tattoo You eight years later.
The band went to Musicland studios in Munich to record its next album, 1974’s It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (UK number two; U.S. number one). Instead, Jagger and Richards assumed production duties and were credited as “the Glimmer Twins.” Both the album and the single of the same name were hits, even without an immediate tour to promote them.
Ron Wood replaced Taylor for the 1976 album, Black and Blue (UK number two; U.S. number one) after committing to the Stones in 1975 for their upcoming Tour of the Americas. The tour featured stage props including a giant phallus and a rope on which Jagger swung out over the audience.
Although the Stones remained popular through the first half of the 1970s, music critics had grown increasingly dismissive of the band’s output, and record sales failed to meet expectations. Jagger had booked a live recording session at the El Mocambo club in Toronto to balance a long-overdue live album, 1977’s Love You Live (UK number three; U.S. number five), the first Stones live album since 1970’s Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!.
In 1978, the band released Some Girls (UK number two; U.S. number one), which included “Miss You” and “Beast of Burden.” The album’s success re-established the Stones’ popularity among young people. The band released its next album Emotional Rescue (UK number two; U.S. number one) in mid-1980. However, the recording of the album was reportedly plagued by turmoil, with Jagger and Richards’ relationship reaching a new low.
In early 1981, the group recorded Tattoo You (UK number two; U.S. number one) which featured the lead single “Start Me Up,” now a perennial favorite at sporting events. The Stones’ American Tour 1981 was their biggest, longest, and most colorful production to date. In mid 1982, to commemorate their twentieth anniversary, the Stones took their American stage show to Europe, their first European tour in six years. For the tour, the band was joined by former Allman Brothers Band piano player Chuck Leavell, who continues to play and record with the Stones. By the end of the year, the band had signed a new four-album, $28 million recording deal with a new label, CBS Records.
Before leaving Atlantic, the Stones released Undercover (UK number three; U.S. number four) in late 1983. Despite good reviews, the record sold below expectations and there was no tour to support it. By 1985, Jagger was spending more time on solo recordings, and much of the material on 1986’s Dirty Work (UK number four; U.S. number four four) was by Keith Richards, with more contributions by Ron Wood than on previous Stones albums. The Stones were awarded a Lifetime Achievement in February 1986. Richards followed Jagger into the solo field in 1988 when he released his first solo album, Talk Is Cheap (UK number 37; U.S. number 24), which fans and critics received well.
In early 1989, the Stones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Jagger and Richards patched up their differences enough for the band to release yet another successful album, Steel Wheels (UK number two; U.S. number three). The subsequent US Steel Wheels Tour saw the Stones touring for the first time in seven years, and it was their biggest stage production to date. The opening acts were Living Colour and Guns N’ Roses. By the time the tour reached Europe in 1990, the name had been changed to the Urban Jungle Tour. This tour was the last for Bill Wyman, who left the band after the tour, although it was not made official until 1993.
After the successes of Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle tours, band members concentrated on solo work. The Stones’ new distributor, Virgin Records, remastered and repackaged the band’s back catalog of studio albums and also issued a new compilation in 1993 entitled Jump Back: The Best of The Rolling Stones (UK number 16; U.S. number 30). In the same year the Stones began work on their next studio album. With Darryl Jones replacing Wyman, Voodoo Lounge reached UK number one and US number two, going double platinum in the U.S. It would go on to win the 1995 Grammy Award for Best Rock Album. The accompanying Voodoo Lounge Tour began in 1994 and lasted into 1995.
The Rolling Stones’ last album of the 90s was Bridges to Babylon (UK number six; U.S. number three), released in 1997 to mixed reviews. Despite the lack of a hit single from the album, sales were good, and the subsequent international Bridges to Babylon Tour proved the band to be a strong live attraction. Another live album was culled from the tour, No Security (UK number 67; U.S. number 34). In 1999, the Stones staged the No Security Tour in the U.S and the Babylon tour in Europe.
In 2002, the band announced the Licks Tour and released Forty Licks (UK number two; U.S. number two), a greatest hits album that also contained four new songs. On July 30, 2003, the band headlined the Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto concert in Toronto, Canada, to help the city recover from the 2003 SARS epidemic. The concert was attended by an estimated 490,000 people.
On November 9, 2003, the band played its first concert in Hong Kong as part of the Harbor Fest celebration, also in support of the SARS-affected economy. In November 2003, it licensed the right to sell their new 4-DVD boxed set, Four Flicks, recorded on the band’s most recent world tour, to the U.S. Best Buy chain. In response, some Canadian and U.S. music-retail chains (including HMV Canada and Circuit City) pulled Rolling Stones CDs and related merchandise from their shelves.
On July 26, 2005, Jagger’s birthday, the band announced the name of their new album, A Bigger Bang (UK number two; U.S. number three), which was released on September 6 to strong reviews. The album included the most controversial song from the Stones in years, “Sweet Neo Con”, a criticism of American Neoconservatism from Jagger. The subsequent A Bigger Bang Tour began in August and visited North America, South America, and East Asia.
In February 2006, the Stone played the half-time show of Super Bowl XL in Detroit, Michigan, although their performance received mixed reviews at best. Nevertheless, the end of 2005, the Bigger Bang tour set a record of $162 million in gross receipts, breaking the North American mark also set by the Stones in 1994. Later that month, the band played to a claimed 1.5 million on the Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro in a free concert. After performances in New Zealand, Keith Richards went into the hospital in May 2006 for brain surgery after a dubious “fall from a coconut tree” on Fiji, causing a six-week postponement of the European leg of the tour. The following month, it was reported that Ron Wood was entering rehabilitation for alcohol abuse.
The Stones returned to North America for concerts in September 2006 and Europe on June 5, 2007. In late October 2006, filmmaker Martin Scorsese filmed the Stones at New York City’s Beacon Theater, featuring an audience that included several world leaders, for film titled Shine a Light (2008).
On March 24, 2007, the band announced a tour of Europe called the “Bigger Bang 2007” tour, which became the highest-grossing tour of all time, earning $437 million and a place in the Guinness World Records. June 12, 2007 saw the release of the Stones’ second four-disc, DVD set entitled The Biggest Bang, featuring the band’s shows in Austin, Rio de Janeiro, Saitama, Japan, Shanghai, and Buenos Aires, as well as extras. As with their first DVD set, the collection was to be sold exclusively through retailer Best Buy.
Besides their huge popularity and unprecedented longevity as a top rock and roll band, the Rolling Stones are notable in modern popular music for assimilating various musical genres into their recordings and performances, ultimately making a unique style of their own. The band’s career is marked by a continual reference and reliance on musical styles like American blues, country, R & B, folk, reggae, and world music, as well as traditional English styles that use stringed instrumentation like violins and harps.
While the claim that they are history’s “greatest rock and roll band” may be debated, they are certainly one of the most successful and longest-lived.