If you looked up rockstar in the dictionary, you’re likely to be greeted with a grinning picture of Keith Richards. He has written the book on rock ‘n’ roll cliches but, underneath all of the exteriors that the Rolling Stones legend hides behind, is one of the most distinctive and intuitive guitarists to have ever lived. Not only did The Rolling Stones breathe new and dangerous energy into the pop music scene when they arrived in the sixties, but they did so by paying homepage to the past. It means that while Richards was the face of a new sound he was still indebted to those before him, and he’s always known it.
Richards paid his way by perfecting his craft. Finely tuning his skills for riffing is one reason why he has had a career of such great longevity and, although he may come across as nonchalant, the guitar is something he eternally cherishes. Rock ‘n’ roll is his church and something that he has been devoted to ever since he was a child. It was the sounds of one disc which would act as a siren’s call for the young boy, with Richards never looking back for even a millisecond since. It was a style which Richards would implement into all his work with The Rolling Stones and, in turn, send the band to the top of the rock pile.
One key figure that made Richards aware of what rock ‘n’ roll, as he did with many musicians of the sixties, was a certain Mr Elvis Presley who is probably greatest salesman of the genre in history. When Presley first hit the airwaves he helped take the genre to new heights and make it more appealing for a mainstream audience and, perhaps more accurately, a white record business. There’s one Elvis record that stands out to Richards as the single that seduced him into the glitzy world of rock, 1956’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ — the song that changed Keith Richards’ life.
“You didn’t hear a lot of rock before Elvis came along,” Richards recalled to Guitar World when asked to pinpoint the one record which changed his life. “I remember being 13 or something and listening to the radio under the bedsheets when I was supposed dot be asleep. ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ came on [European radio station] Radio Luxembourg, and I kept losing the signal.
“I remember actually daring to get out from under the blanket and walk around the room trying to get it back without waking up the parents.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries, it wasn’t Elvis that Richards ever particularly wanted to emulate, it was The King’s right-hand man and lead guitarist Scotty Moore whose prowess blew Keef away. Moore could certainly make your toes tap, and to Richards, that is about as good as it gets. Speaking with Rolling Stone, he told the magazine, “Scotty Moore was my hero. There’s a little jazz in his playing, some great country licks and a grounding in the blues as well. It’s never been duplicated. I can’t copy it.”
The guitarist remembered Moore after his death, “He was a gentle, unassuming guy. He liked his scotch – they didn’t call him Scotty for nothing. In 1996, I went up to Woodstock to do a session at Levon Helm’s barn with Levon, Scotty and Elvis’ drummer D.J. Fontana.
“I’ve gotten used to playing with my heroes,” effused Richards. “I played with Little Richard in his dressing room when I was 19, thinking, ‘This’ll do!’” but this was the crème de la crème. It was a session of good old boys. There was plenty of whiskey that day. There will never be another Scotty Moore.”
Elvis’ ability to break down barriers with his incredible charisma, allowed rock ‘n’ roll to reach brand new audiences and laid the foundations for bands like The Rolling Stones to come along to stretch the boundaries even further. It’s staggering to think a record like ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ came along all the way back in 1956 and the image of a young Keef under his bed listening to it whilst pretending to be asleep remains a hilarious picture to envisage.
Little did he know that he would be sending a brand new generation sneaking off with their parents’ radios to listen to him in just a few short years.