With his hybrid pirate-come-cowboy captain of the high sea’s aesthetic, penchant for rum, and lust for the stripped-back soul of music it’s no surprise that Keith Richards is a fan of Reggae.
“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 & 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.”
When it comes to reggae and roots music Keith has always had his finger on the pulse. Back in 1973, The Rolling Stones were cutting Goats Head Soup in Jamaica, 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. 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.
Richards told the BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs show is that Gregory Isaacs’ ‘Extra Classic’ is the one track that he couldn’t live without. Speaking of his time in Jamaica he declared his love of Isaacs, saying, “I’ve always thought that Gregory was one of the best songwriters that came out of that island and a sweet singer.”His love for ‘Extra Classic’ even stretches a step further as he states: ‘Extra Classic’ was a song where I met my old lady, so I thought I’d carry that through.”
‘Innocent People Cry’ is another Gregory Isaacs track that rests firmly amid his favourites, the rather more soulful jam stirs up Richards emotional side with a social lament.
Elsewhere in the Reggae realm, Richards digs into some recent stuff. He once described The Itals 1998 track ‘In a Dis Ya Time’ as “the perfect Reggae song.” The Itals are a Grammy-nominated Jamaican vocal group known for their classic soaring harmonies and socially conscious lyrics, that seem strangely akin to some early Stones stuff.
In the 2010 interview with Rolling Stone magazine in which Richards discussed reggae, he also linked the genre back to the roots music that serves as the platform for his rock and roll. Speaking of the inexorable link between Blues and Reggae as a sort of musical exultation from enforced hardships, Richards reaffirmed his undying love for Robert Johnson. The track he touted, in particular, was ’32-20’, the Robert Johnson that stands out from his back catalogue for its swinging vibe. Completing the blues roots contingent were ‘Where Did You Leave Heaven’ by Big Bill Broonzy, Jesse Fuller’s version of the old blues standard ‘Stagolee’, the early blues-rock anthem ‘It Hurts Me Too’ by Elmore James, along with the record that Richards told Q magazine “inspired [his] guitar weaving” Little Walters’ ‘Key to the Highway’ from one of Richards’ favourite albums Hate To See You Go.
The link that runs through all these records is not just the shared origin but the undeniable soul, transcendence and indelible sense of exuberance in the playing. As the great man once said, “Good music comes out of people playing together, knowing what they want to do and going for it.”
You can dive into the full compiled list below and listen to the curated playlist of sweet soulful sounds that Richards lists amongst his favourites too.
Keith Richards’ favourite reggae songs of all time:
- ‘Stagolee’ by Jesse Fuller, 1958
- ‘When Did You Leave Heaven’ by Big Bill Broonzy, 1951
- ‘It Hurts Me Too’ by Elmore James, 1957
- ‘Extra Classic’ by Gregory Isaacs, 1977
- ‘Key to the Highway’ Little Walter, 1958
- ‘Piece of My Heart’ Erma Franklin, 1967
- ‘In a Dis Ya Time’ The Itals, 1998
- ‘Innocent People Cry’ Gregory Isaacs, 1974
- ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ Chuck Berry, 1958
- ‘32-20’ Robert Johnson, 1936