Keith Richards is not the sort of guy who skirts around a subject. In his own unflinching way, he has offered up a plethora of blunt musical opinions in the past. Quite often, these takes are not the most celebratory, but they are usually cushioned from being cutting by the self-evident honesty behind them. In short, Richards doesn’t have the time to make petty jives because there’s rum to be glugged somewhere, so most of his comments are backed with a sincerity that leaves you saying, ‘fair enough’.
This very notion, however, leaves the rare flipside basking in sacred ground. If he compliments your band, then you better believe that he holds you in the utmost regard—few things in the world of rock ‘n’ roll could be higher praise than that. Thus, when he championed four bands as the greatest of all time back in 2008, his considered collection proved more than noteworthy, and no doubt left the recipients blushing.
In the world of rock ‘n’ roll that The Rolling Stones man would soon enter, the arrival of the King proved to be a huge moment. While Elvis Presley himself has rightfully received a million country miles of column inches for heralding the future of pop culture, Richards recognises that without his stellar backing band, The Hillbilly Cats, none of it would be possible.
“He hit it like a bombshell. It was like the world went from black & white to technicolour,” Richards told Classic Album. “I guess they were the first white band that anybody heard of with a good lead singer, that was sailable. They had the rhythm. The beautiful thing about Elvis was that he sort of turned everybody into everybody (and made people think) ‘maybe you can do it’.”
Comprised of Scotty Moore on guitar, D.J Fontana on drums and Bill Black on bass, the core three-piece offered up an iconic sound that complimented the bombastic style of their frontman to form an act that illuminated the future. Richards may adoration in the absolute for the blues players who got the ball rolling, but as far as bands are concerned, he recognises Elvis’ group as the ground zero, opining: “I would start personally with probably The Hillbily Cats… The most amazing stuff and it was very early on.”
Richards then goes on to champion another early act. “At the same time (as Elvis’ band) then Dave Bartholomew’s band that back up Little Richard and Fats Domino. That was a great band.” As a bandleading trumpeter, Bartholomew whisked up a butter-cutting sound that still carried the fresh edge of forthcoming rock ‘n’ roll.
What’s more, he wrote hits with this pioneering sound too. As Bartholomew once recalled, when he heard that Imperial Records were about to release his now-iconic arrangement of ‘Blueberry Hill’ sung by Fats Domino: “I said, ‘Man, you’re crazy. That’s a nothing song!’ Two weeks later, Lew [Lew Chudd, head of Imperial Records] called me and said, ‘From now on, you keep making those ‘nothing songs’. We had just shipped three million. That was unheard of during that time period. He said, ’Go downtown and pick out any kind of car you want for your bonus.’ I went out and got the biggest Eldorado Cadillac I could find.”
Next up, Richards chose his classic contemporaries, The Beatles. He hasn’t always been fully behind the band, as he once told Esquire: “If you’re the Beatles in the ’60s, you just get carried away—you forget what it is you wanted to do. You’re starting to do Sgt. Pepper. Some people think it’s a genius album, but I think it’s a mishmash of rubbish, kind of like Satanic Majesties — ’Oh, if you can make a load of sh*t, so can we.’”
However, the fact that the Stones tried to follow that “mishmash of rubbish” is a clear indication of the seismic influence that the ‘Fab Four’ had on the era. In fact, Richards saw his friends as simply rowing in the same boat. “We would collaborate with each other. So we didn’t go head to head, because otherwise, it seemed like ‘you’re either Beatles or Stones’, bullshit. And we are so similar, that’s not true. We all recognized that and it was one of the great things about it. I mean, between the two bands there was never any sense of competition, was cooperation,” he once answered on Ask Keith.
Lastly, in typical Richards fashion, his fourth choice is more of a one-man band than an actual group. “I always like Steve Marriott,” Richards opined. “You know, The Small Faces and then he had Humble Pie. I’m not going to say like Led Zeppelin, The Who, Black Sabbath, I would only be lying, not my favourites. They are all good, I know them, they are all good players and everything, but as a band no,” he somewhat paradoxically concluded while championing a single musician.
Keith Richards’ four favourite bands:
- The Hillbilly Cats
- The Dave Bartholomew Band
- The Beatles
- Steve Marriott