Keith Richards is a man that wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to his musical choices. His outspoken ways have landed him in the occasional feud, but more often than not, he’s celebrating his influences in such a way that in another lifetime he could’ve been some sort of eccentric musicologist living vicariously through the blues, roots and reggae artists that went before him or followed in his stride.
“What I love about reggae,” Richards regales in the recent Under the Influence documentary, “Is that it’s all so natural, there’s none of this forced stuff that I was getting tired of in rock music.” He then goes on to clarify, “Rock and roll I never get tired of, but ‘rock’ is a white man’s version, and they turn it into a march, that’s [the modern] version of rock. Excuse me,” he adds humorously, “I prefer the roll.”
Naturally, with those comments in mind, his twenty favourite singers list is quite reggae and blues heavy, but there are a few other outliers in the mix that hint at the Rolling Stones legend’s eclectic list of loves and influences. The list in question comes as part of Rolling Stone Magazines ‘100 greatest singers of all time’ piece that saw eminent stars supply a ballot of their own twenty favourites.
Now, it is well worth noting that Richards’ list dates back to 2008, so it may well have changed a bit over the years and with Richards himself taking up a spot on the list, it is perhaps not his most definitive selection, but it still makes interesting reading, nevertheless. Otherwise, his taste is pretty impeccable. If I may betray my own opinions, the two greatest singers of all time are notable absentees, but aside from that, everyone mentioned has a unique set of pipes well worth championing.
Taking the top spot on Richards’ list is the woman who famously could “make anything sound good” – Aretha Franklin. Her inclusion is perhaps unsurprising, not just because it is self-evident that she is one of the greatest singers of all time, but because Richards also inducted her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and she was the first-ever female to do so. His speech was most a list of grunts and nods, but his affection for Lady Soul was clear. ‘Keef’ was also lucky enough to collaborate with her, so he knows her skills firsthand too.
The next spot on the list is occupied by the reggae pioneer Jimmy Cliff. The duo became pals after meeting when The Rolling Stones were cutting Goats Head Soup in Jamaica in 1973, a time which he remembered fondly in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, “[It was] very memorable, especially in that year. Because that was ’73. That was the year that [Bob] Marley and the Wailers put out Catch A Fire.”
“I remember being in Jamaica,” he adds. “There was this feeling in the air, actually, that Jamaica was starting to make a mark on the map. It was a great feeling.” After the record was cut, Richards decided to stay in Jamaica for a while, where he immersed himself in the vivified culture and basked in the sun-soaked glory of Reggae for a while and fell in love with Cliff’s music. “He wrote some of the most beautiful ballads that ever came out of Jamaica,” Richards remarked.
Further down the list, another of Richards’ close pals crops up in the form of Tom Waits and his thousand-year-old voice. “There’s nobody in the world like him,” Waits says of his friend and collaborator, Richards. Speaking to NPR’s Fresh Air, he spoke of their time working on Waits’ iconic Rain Dogs together, stating: “We wrote songs together for a while and that was fun [but] he doesn’t really remember anything or write anything down. So, you play for an hour and he would yell across the room, ‘Scribe!’ And I looked around. ‘Scribe? Who’s the scribe?’ And he’d say it again, now pointing at me.”
The common theme throughout all of Richards’ selections is that he champions a unique voice over the classical measures. Every one of his choices exhibits a great deal of character in their singing, and when you reflect on the near-fictional figure that Richards cuts for himself, that couldn’t be a more befitting criteria.
You can check out the full list below.
Keith Richards’ 20 favourite singers:
- Aretha Franklin
- Jimmy Cliff
- Sam Cooke
- Buddy Holly
- George Jones
- Willie Nelson
- Toots Hibbert
- Aaron Neville
- Muddy Waters
- Gram Parsons
- Ronnie Spector
- Mavis Staples
- Otis Redding
- Smokey Robinson
- Tom Waits
- Little Richard
- Warren Zevon
- Bonnie Raitt
- Elvis Presley
- Keith Richards