From Muddy Waters to Robert Johnson: 12 of Keith Richards favourite albums of all time
Keith Richards is undoubtedly one of the biggest names in rock ‘n’ roll. The Rolling Stones guitarist has made such a valiant attempt to be the embodiment of everything that makes the genre so alluring that more often than not his incredible songwriting ability is too often overlooked. He has an ear for dynamic playing and acute musicianship that has been shaped not by the pursuit of artistic evolution but by the refinement of what he considers the timeless beauty of music.
As such, whenever Keith Richards is asked for a list of his favourite records it is usually a changing, morphing regurgitation of a similar set of blues legends, reggae rulers and ultimate rock icons. When Q Magazine asked the guitarist to pick a selection of his favourite records he didn’t disappoint. Across twelve LPs, Richards provided an extra potent dose of superb delta blues, reggae music to make your soul quiver and the foundation stones of what made not only him but an entire generation, fall in love with rock ‘n’ roll. What’s more, we have the perfect playlist to go with it too.
We’re not here to say that the list below is a definitive vision of Richards’ favourite albums, as any true music fan will tell you, the idea of a favourite anything is, at best, a transient one. But what we are provided with is a distinct and clear distillation of the albums that helped to shape the legendary man often known simply as ‘Keef’, as Q base questions around the music that made him.
It means his selection of Billie Holiday’s record from 1954, Lady Day, a compilation of some of her hits, is given extra gravitas as it was a way for Richards’ mother to introduce him to some of the finer things in life. It certainly helped too: “I really have to thank my mum,” he recalled. “She was playing Billie on the radio whenever possible, which was not a lot because the BBC were not that hip.” Another record selected also came from an important person in Richards’ life—Brian Jones.
The founding member of The Rolling Stones got Richards “hooked” on one of the formative albums of the guitarist’s life when he introduced him to Robert Johnson. The 1961 compilation album King of the Delta Blues Singers saw Richards utterly captivated by the mercurial figure of Johnson. “When Brian pulled out that Robert Johnson record, I immediately said to myself, ‘I want to work with Brian,” recalled Richards, going on to talk about his appreciation for Johnson. “The subject matter of his songs took you into another area of possibilities. That you can write a song about anything. You don’t have to confine it to the popular norms and that was a turn-on with Robert.”
“What I found about the blues and music, tracing things back, was that nothing came from itself,” remembers Richards in his autobiography Life. Selecting McKinley Morganfield A.K.A. Muddy Waters as the album that ‘keeps him classy’, he says: “When it comes to Muddy, I get emotional. He had one of the most powerful, almost indefinable voices and he was shaping music.” A similar selection comes in the form of the inspirational Little Walter and his album Hate To See You Go, about which Richards says: “Little Walter was Muddy Waters‘ harp player, but he had an incredibly powerful, sort of smokey voice and wrote some lovely songs that were hits on his own.”
For Richards, Walter was a serious inspiration for him and the rest of The Rolling Stones too. “You can’t really write blues on a sheet of paper, it has to be heard, it has to be experienced, and Little Walter is just one of the best at it,” he proclaims. “I was always fascinated by how they played together, the way they weaved. I’ve been through Brian Jones, Mick Taylor, and Ronnie Wood and we’ve always been locked into that format.”
One place Keith Richards has always been happy is in the muck and the grime. The sleazy guitarist has always had a touch of the swamp about him and his pick of Slim Harpo’s Raining in My Heart is a testament to his devotion. “Ahh, swamp music, swamp blues… just incredible sounds. A lot of people don’t know about this stuff and it is some of the darkest blues.”
Elvis Presley has also been included on the list, with the singer’s guitarist, Scotty Moore being one of Richards’ favourite of all time. A Date With Elvis showed Richards how to keep things simple: “It’s minimalism, I suppose, how to get the most out of something with the smallest amount of ingredients, and out comes the best meal you ever had.” Another album which inspired Richards was The ‘Chirping’ Crickets by Buddy Holly, he tells Q: “I remember talking to Lennon and McCartney about Buddy. The fact that he was writing his own songs was a great impetus for us. In those days you were a musician and the idea of also being a writer was the difference between the greengrocer and the blacksmith.”
What’s Keef’s definitive Motown record? “For me, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles epitomise Motown.” The guitarist picks Going to a Go-Go as his record of choice. “You could hear Smokey’s influence going on through Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. Such a great songwriter. I mean, ‘The Tracks Of My Tears’ … you might as well just go and throw yourself in the toilet [laughs].” The rest of the list offers up some searing recommendations.
One such recommendation comes as an album to “soothe a broken heart” is requested. Richards doesn’t disappoint picking a compilation LP from the King of soul, Otis Redding. “I would take this around to friends who were having a hard time,” says Richards. “Song such as ‘Try A Little Tenderness,’ they didn’t die with the guy who wrote them. The point of a great song is that it doesn’t care when it is or where it is, if it’s held in the right way — and that’s what Otis did.”
As well as being a huge soul, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll fan, Richards, it would appear, is also a country fan too. For him, there was only one album that really piqued his interest—the Flying Burrito Brothers’ 1969 album The Gilded Palace of Sin. “I used to hang out with Gram [Parsons], sometimes not for the good. I survived, Gram didn’t. He turned me onto cats like Merle Haggard and George Jones. He crystallized country for me. Gram reshaped country music. He brought it up to date and made it hip.”
Country music may be a simple jump to the side for Richards but his love of reggae goes a little further. “I lived in Jamaica and I know most of these cats,” said Richards when picking the Harder They Come soundtrack. “I happened to be in Jamaica when the movie came out, and it really reminds me a lot of those days. There was an incredible feeling there at that time because their music was coming to fruition.” It’s a piece of Richards’ life which he has always held extremely dear.
One thing that may not always be apparent with Richards is that he is a shrewd operator. Though he would likely be the first in line to tell you that rock ‘n’ roll is made by the heart and for the hips, he would also be happy to agree that the brain must be involved too. One album that “forces” him to think is Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy, about which he claimed: “One of the best songwriters ever. Really intelligent and another one that made me go, ‘Why didn’t I write a song about my typewriter?’ You can hear this is a guy that thinks a lot and was troubled, but doesn’t mind laying it out on the line.”
All told, it is a list of albums which not only offers you a clear image of Keith Richards’ musical journey, nor only the fact that said journey ended about 40 years ago, but that beneath the rock star status, Keith Richards is a fan, pure and simple. His list of 12 favourite albums below proves it. Find the perfect playlist just below that.