The Rolling Stones Biography

The Rolling Stones are a British rock band who rose to prominence during the mid-1960s. The band was named after a song by Muddy Waters, a leading exponent of hard-rocking blues. (This was a popular choice of name; at least two other bands are believed to have called themselves The Rolling Stones before the “real” Stones were formed.) In their music, the Rolling Stones were the embodiment of the idea of importing blues style into popular music. Their first recordings were covers or imitations of rhythm and blues music, but they soon greatly extended the reach of their lyrics and playing, but rarely, if ever, lost their basic blues feel.

The original lineup included Mick Jagger (vocals), Brian Jones (guitar), Keith Richards (guitar), Ian Stewart (piano), Charlie Watts (drums) and Bill Wyman (bass). By the time of their first album release Ian Stewart was “officially” not part of the band, though he continued to record and perform with them.

Brian Jones, although popular and charismatic, was forced out of the band and died an enigmatic death, presumed accidental at the time, although accusations have surfaced that he was murdered. Jagger and Richards took over songwriting and performance leadership. Jones had favored sticking close to the blues base, although he had also experimented with the sitar, but Jagger and Richard broadened their approach.

Table of contents

1 Early History: 1961-1967
2 Sex, Drugs, Death, and Rock & Roll: 1967-1971
3 Letting It Bleed: 1972-1981
4 Still Standing: 1981-present

Early History: 1961-1967

The band came into being in 1961 when former schoolfriends Jagger and Richards met Brian Jones, while all three were students (Jones & Richards at art school, Jagger at the London School of Economics). United by their shared interest in rhythm and blues music the group rehearsed extensively, playing in public only occasionally at Alexis Korner’s Crawdaddy Club in London. At first Jones, a guitarist who also toyed with numerous other instruments, was their creative leader. Taking their name from a Muddy Waters song, the band rapidly gained a reputation in London for their frantic, highly energetic covers of the blues and R’n’B songs of their idols and, through manager Andrew Oldham were signed to Decca Records (who had passed when offered The Beatles). At this time their music was fairly primitive: Richards had learned much of his guitar playing from the recordings of Chuck Berry, and had not yet developed a style of his own, and Jagger was not as in control of the idioms as he would soon become. Already though, the rhythmic interplay between Watts and Richards was clearly the heart of their music.

The choice of material on their first record, a self-titled EP, reflected their live shows. Similarly, the album The Rolling Stones which appeared in April 1964 featured versions of such classics as “Route 66” (originally recorded by Bobby Troup), “Mona” (Bo Diddley) and “Carol” (Chuck Berry). The performances, despite often being raggedly inferior to the originals, were pivotal in introducing a generation of white British youth to R’n’B music, and helped to fuel the “British Invasion”. More importantly perhaps, while The Beatles were still suited, clean-cut boys with mop-top haircuts, the Stones cultivated the opposite image: decidedly unkempt, and posing for publicity photographs like a gang.

The follow-up album, The Rolling Stones #2 was also composed mainly of cover tunes, only now augmented by a couple of songs written by the fledgling partnership of Jagger and Richards. Encouraged by Oldham, the band toured Europe and America continuously in their support, playing to packed crowds of screaming teenagers in scenes reminiscent of the height of Beatlemania. While on tour they took time to visit important locations in the history of the music that inspired them, recording the EP Five By Five at the studios of Chess Records in Chicago.

Back at home these early years of success represented a rare period of stability in the personal relationship between the band members. Jagger, Richards and Jones were sharing a house and Jones had begun to see Anita Pallenberg, an actress and model who introduced them to the circle of society in which she moved: a group of young artists, musicians and film makers. Prompted by Oldham, who possessed sufficient business acumen to see where money was to be made, Jagger and Richards became more prolific songwriters and 1965’s Out Of Our Heads contained much self-penned material, including the classic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, and saw the dynamic of the band began to change, with Jagger and Richards starting to emerge as the percieved leaders of the band. Jones, not unaware of his reduced importance, retreated into drug abuse, alienating both Richards and Pallenberg, who began a liaison that would last over ten years. During this period Pallenberg’s opinions about the music, as one of the few people the band trusted, should not be underestimated.

With the main songwriters maintaining their rate of production, Aftermath (1966) continued the progression, consisting entirely of Jagger/Richards compositions including “Mother’s Little Helper”, about pill abuse, and the misogynistic “Under My Thumb”, whereas on Between The Buttons (1967) they wore the influences of their many contemporaries, including The Who and The Kinks.

Sex, Drugs, Death, and Rock & Roll: 1967-1971

By now the band had become almost synonymous with part of the rebellious spirit of the 1960s, and in particular a more relaxed attitude towards drug use. As a reaction the police obtained warrants to search Richards’ country home, Redlands. The February 1967 raid, now legendary in the band’s mythology, occurred during one of the regular parties, where police discovered a moderate quantity of cannabis. The raid also served as a source of apocryphal stories, mainly concerning the appearance and demeanor of their friend Marianne Faithfull, which only served to augment their reputation for debauchery. Richards was charged and a few months later stood trial for allowing drug use in his home. Amidst intense press interest he was convicted and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, prompting The Times newspaper to run an editorial criticising the verdict. Beneath the title “Who Breaks A Butterfly On A Wheel” editor William Rees-Mogg wrote:

“If we are going to make any case a symbol of the conflict between the sound traditional values of Britain and the new hedonism, then we must be sure that the sound traditional values include those of tolerance and equity.”

During the furore, Decca shrewdly released Flowers, a rapidly cobbled-together collection of hits and studio outtakes that was nevertheless a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

With Richards out on bail within a day, and shortly to be acquitted on appeal, work commenced on a new “psychedelic” album, which Jagger envisioned as the group’s response to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. The record, which would eventually be released as Their Satanic Majesties’ Request received lukewarm reviews — the songs and arrangements did not lend themselves to their natural style and the increasingly-strung-out Brian Jones contributed little — but, despite Richards later pronouncing it “crap”, still produced a small number of songs which showcased the improving songwriting of Jagger and Richards. Within the band the dynamic was changing with the two principal writers steadily usurping power from the former leader, Jones, with Pallenberg as their eminence grise.

After the excesses of Satanic Majesties, and with personal relations between Jones and Richards increasingly frayed, the band returned to the black music that had originally inspired them on 1968’s Beggars Banquet. Despite the tension, and aided by an excellent sound from an up-and-coming producer named Jimmy Miller, Jagger and Richards produced some of their most memorable work — including the distorted acoustic guitar driven “Street Fighting Man” and the anthemic “Sympathy For The Devil” — and the Stones entered the phase that would see them billed as “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band”. The songs themselves were firmly rooted in the blues, but tempered by the changes that occurred in 1960s music, assimilating the imagery of Dylan and the emergent heavy rock of Cream and Jimi Hendrix. In contrast to its predecessor, however, it was a clear rejection of the “Hippie” ethic, replacing the platitudes of “free love” with a layer of sleaze. Two other events contributed to the change in the Stones’ sound. Firstly, Richards had played extensively with Ry Cooder, appropriating his open-G guitar tuning and some of his sinuous style (much to Cooder’s dismay, who publicly accused Richards of “ripping him off”). Secondly, both Mick and Keith befriended Gram Parsons, who helped educate them about the country music with which he had grown up. Music was not all the Stones and the independently wealthy Parsons had in common: “We liked drugs,” Richards said later, “and we liked the finest quality.”

Drugs were, however, making Jones increasingly unreliable. Now Jagger and Richards were not only providing most of the material but were also in charge of the group’s artistic direction, away from the blues preferred by Jones and towards a harder-rocking sound. Increasingly Jones was either abscent of recording sessions by choice or locked out of them. After his minimal contribution to Beggar’s Banquet he found himself forced out in May 1969, replaced by the young, jazz-influenced guitarist, Mick Taylor, then of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Within two months, and a matter of days before the new-look band were due to play a free concert in London’s Hyde Park, Jones was found drowned in his swimming pool. The concert went ahead, with an audience of hundreds of thousands of fans, with Jagger reading from Keats “Adonais” and releasing a flock of tragically short lived butterflies by way of tribute to the late guitarist. The band’s performance, under rehearsed and suffering from the remaining members narcotic intake, was somewhat shambolic. Shortly after the band released their highly successful single, “Honky Tonk Women,” recorded without Jones but too early for Taylor to contribute.

Their studio work was another matter. Let It Bleed (1969) followed a short time later and was rapidly hailed another classic, featuring the slow and brooding “Gimme Shelter”, the folk inflected “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (featuring a boys choir) and a further nod to their roots with a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain”.

Immediately, the band set off on another US tour, characterised by the hedonism that their position in rock’s aristocracy afforded them. In an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of Hyde Park, and as a reaction to the Woodstock festival the tour culminated in a free concert given at Altamont, a disused racetrack outside San Francisco. Poorly organised, and with on-site security provided by the Hell’s Angels (at the suggestion of the Grateful Dead), the concert was a disaster, featuring running battles between fans and security which reached a head when Meredith Hunter, a young black fan who had unwisely brought a pistol (and a white girlfriend) to the show, was stabbed and beaten to death by the Angels during the band’s performance of “Under My Thumb”. (The concert would be documented in Albert and David Mayles’ film Gimme Shelter).

The murder, coming so soon after the death of Jones, had a harrowing effect on Richards and his reaction to the events was to increase his usage of heroin. He would spend the best part of next decade as a junkie, taking occasional cures in private clinics but always returning to the drug, and each subsequent tour would become a logistical nightmare to ensure a regular supply in the face of trouble from the police and customs officers. Richards has always maintained that the one facet of his life that was unaffected was his live performance. Concert tapes, including the time in 1976 when he fell asleep on stage, do not bear this out.

In time heroin would sap Richards’ creativity and lead to more tragic events, but in 1971 the band showed no sign of slowing. Sticky Fingers (1971), the band’s first record under their own Rolling Stones Records label, continued where Let It Bleed had left off, featuring the rocking “Brown Sugar” (another big hit), the country-styled “Wild Horses” (which showed the influence of Parsons, and which caused a disagreement between him and Jagger and songwriting credits) and a version of Faithfull’s “Sister Morphine”, about her own ambiguous relationship with heroin.

Letting It Bleed: 1972-1981

As Richards removed himself from society, Jagger began to move in more elevated social circles. He married the pregnant Nicaraguan model Bianca P?ez Mora Mac?s and the couple’s jet-set lifestyle put further distance between himself and Keith. They did have one further classic album within them. Pressured by the UK Inland Revenue service about several years of unpaid income tax, the band left for the South of France, where Richards rented a chateau and sublet rooms to the band members and assorted hangers-on. Using the recently completed Rolling Stones Mobile Studio they set about recording the double album Exile on Main Street (1972) in the basement of their new home. Dismissed by some on its release as sprawling and self-indulgent, the record is now considered among the band’s greatest. The film Cocksucker Blues documents the subsequent tour.

It would also be one of the last on which the band still functioned as a unit. By the time Exile had been completed Jagger had made the other band members aware that he was more interested in the celebrity lifestyle than working on its follow-up, and increasingly their records were made piecemeal, with tracks and parts laid down as, and when, the band, and Jagger and Richards in particular, could get together and remain amicable for sufficiently long to do so. When it finally arrived, Goats Head Soup (1973) was disappointing, with the Stones unique sound diluted by the influence of glam rock and memorable only for the hit single “Angie”, popularly believed to be about David Bowie’s new wife but in reality another of Richards’ odes to Pallenberg. The making of the record was not helped by another legal battle over drugs, this one dating back to their stay in France.

By the time they came to Munich to record 1974’s It’s Only Rock And Roll, there were even more problems. Regular producer Jimmy Miller was not asked to participate in the sessions because of his increasing unreliabillity due to drug use. Critics generally wrote the album off as uninspired and “more of the same” from a band percieved as artistically stagnating, but both album and single were huge hits, even without the customary tour to promote them.

Intra-band strife continued. Mick Taylor’s intricate lead style and shy persona never quite matched Richards’ outspoken image and basic, Chuck Berry inspired rhythm work. By the time of It’s Only Rock And Roll Richards was reportedly berating Taylor during recording sessions, and Taylor contributed little to the album. Irked by percieved mistreatment, and a small share of the band’s royalties, Taylor announced he was leaving the band shortly before sessions commenced for the next album, Black and Blue (1976).

The Rolling Stones used the Black and Blue sessions (again in Munich) to audition possible replacements. Guitarists stylistically far flung as Humble Pie lead Peter Frampton and ex-Yardbirds impressario Jeff Beck were auditioned. American session players Wayne Perkins and Harvey Mandel appeared on much of the album, but the band settled on Ron Wood, a long time friend of Richards and guitarist with The Faces, whose singer Rod Stewart had recently gone solo. Wood had already contributed to It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll, but his first public act with the band would be the 1975 American Tour.

The shows featured a new format for the Stones with their usual “five guys on stage, playing” act replaced by increasingly theatrical stage props and gimmicks, including a giant inflatible phallus and a cherry picker on which Jagger would soar out over the audience. This represented a further breakdown in Mick and Keith’s relationship — the pragmatic Richards considering it entirely superfluous and distracting from the music. Again, Jagger was if nothing else shrewdly interpreting market trends- the mid-1970s were the era of flashy stage acts such as Kiss and Elton John, and the band’s tours were to become even more expensive and elaborate in the years to come.

Although the Rolling Stones remained hugely popular through the ’70s, music critics had grown increasingly dismissive of the band’s output. Keith Richards would have more serious concerns in 1977. Despite having spent much of the previous year undergoing a series of drug therapies to help withdraw from heroin, including (allegedly) having having his blood filtered, Richards and Pallenberg were arrested in a Toronto hotel room and charged with possession of heroin. The case would drag on for a year, with Richards eventually receiving a suspended sentence and ordered to play a concert for a local charity. This motivated a final concerted attempt to his drug habit, which proved largely successful. It also coincided with the end of his relationship with Pallenberg, which had become increasingly strained since the tragic death of their third child (an infant son named Tara).

While Richards was settling his legal and personal problems, Jagger continued his jet set lifestyle. He was a regular at New York’s Studio 54 disco club, often in the company of model Jerry Hall. His marriage to Bianca would end in 1977.

By this time punk rock had become highly influential in pop circles, and the Stones were increasingly criticized as being decadent, aging millionaires, their music was considered by many to be either stagnant or irrelevant. Clash vocalist Joe Strummer even went so far as to declare “No Beatles, no Stones, no Elvis in ’77.”

In 1978 the band recorded Some Girls, their most focused and successful album for some time, despite the perceived misogyny of the title track upsetting many. Jagger and Richards seemed to channel much of the personal turmoil surrounding them into renewed creative vitality. With the notable exception of the disco-influenced “Miss You,” (a hit single and a live staple) most of the songs on the album were fast, basic guitar-driven Rock and Roll, and the album did much to quell the band’s critics.

Emotional Rescue (1980) was in a similar vein, but lacked the redeeming features of its predecessor. Tattoo You (1981), like the album before it, was composed mainly of unused songs from earlier recording outings (The ballad “Waiting on a Friend” dated all the way back to the Goats Head Soup sessions). It also featured the single “Start Me Up,” showing that Richards was still capable of writing guitar parts of the same calibre as ten years earlier. Tatoo You and the subsequent tour were major commercial successes.

Still Standing: 1981-present

Throughout the early 1980s the Jagger/Richards partnership continued to falter, and their records would suffer because of it. 1983’s Undercover was widely seen as Jagger’s attempt to make the Rolling Stones’ sound more compatible with current musical trends. The album’s slick production and violent political and sexual content alienated both critics and fans. To make matters worse, Ron Wood was now suffering from his own growing drug habit.

In 1982 Jagger signed a major solo deal with the band’s new label, CBS Records. This move angered Richards, who saw it as a lack of commitment to the band. Indeed, Jagger was spending a great deal of time on his solo recordings and most of the material on 1986’s Undercover was authored solely buy Keith Richards (indeed, many would later speculate that after years of making decisions in drug-addled Richards’ place, Jagger resented Richards reasserting creative control). The album again sold poorly, and sales were probably hurt by Jagger’s decision not to tour in support of the album.

To add to the band’s woes in 1986, longtime collabortator and unofficial band member Ian Stewart died of a massive heart attack. The Rolling Stones’ only live appearance during this time was a tribute to Stewart. By this point Jagger and Richards had begun openly criticize each other in the press, and many observers assumed the Rolling Stones had broken up. Sales of Jagger’s solo records (She’s The Boss (1985) and Primitive Cool (1987)) did not live up to expectations. Ironically, Richards’ first solo record, Talk Is Cheap (1988), which he had been reluctant to make because of his loyalty to the Stones, was well received by both fans and critics, prompting Jagger to shelve his own solo career and reform the group for 1989’s Steel Wheels album and tour, widely heralded as a return to form.

In 1991 Wyman left the band and published “Stone Alone”, a frank and honest autobiography. (In 2002, Wyman would write an even more ambitious coffee table tome entitled “Rolling With the Stones”). After leaving the band, Wyman was replaced by respected session musician Darryl Jones in time to record Voodoo Lounge (1994) and Bridges to Babylon — both highly praised — and to tour in support both records.

The Rolling Stones were awarded a Grammy for lifetime achievement in 1986 and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.


  • On July 30, 2003, the band headlined the Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto concert in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, to help the city overcome the effects of the 2003 SARS epidemic. It was attended by an estimated 450,000 people, the largest concert in Canadian history.
  • On November 9, 2003, the band played its first ever concert in Hong Kong as part of Harbour Fest celebration.
  • In November of 2003 the band exclusively licensed the right to sell their new 4-CD boxed set to the Best Buy chain of stores. In response, major music retail chains (including Tower Records, Virgin Records and HMV) have pulled all Rolling Stones CDs and related merchandise from their shelves and replaced them with signs explaining the situation.


1: Record releases: The early Stones albums — from The Rolling Stones to Flowers — whose creation is described above, were originally released on Decca Records in the UK. They were, however, repackaged, resequenced and/or retitled for release in the United States. All references above are to the original UK releases.

2: It is an often repeated misconception that Meredith Hunter’s murder at Altamont took place during “Sympathy For The Devil”. This was originally reported in Rolling Stone magazine, considered by some to be the “journal of record” for 1960s music. The aptness of this legend has ensured that no amount of subsequent corrections (in that publication and elsewhere) has been able to correct this impression.
See Greil Marcus’s essay “Myth and Misquotation”, collected in “The Dustbin Of History”.

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