In 1962, a 20-year-old Brian Jones came face to face with a lumbering shipping clerk with a square jaw and gigantic fingers. This Scotsman was four years older than Jones but looked at least a decade removed from his own impish looks. Despite the clear differences in looks and attitudes, the two were brought together due to a shared love: blues.
Stewart had answered Jones’ ad in Jazz Weekly, a paper that circulated around London’s music scene, looking for R&B musicians. Jones had occasionally been sitting in with Alexis Kroner’s Blues Incorporated, and from those jams, he had befriended a pair of young blues like him named Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. All four came together when Blues Incorporated couldn’t play one of their weekly Thursday night gigs at the Marquee Club.
Eventually, the six-man lineup of The Rolling Stones was established with Jones, Jagger, Richards, and Stewart, along with Bill Wyman and former Blues Incorporated drummer Charlie Watts. By mid-1963, the band had a new manager in Andrew Loog Oldham, who pushed the group to compete as pop stars with The Beatles. Oldham decided that Stewart was the odd man out that kept the group from achieving this goal and released him of his duties as an official band member.
Despite being canned, Stewart opted to stay in The Rolling Stones family by becoming the band’s road manager. The role allowed Stewart to play with the band on records, and after Oldham officially left the group’s orbit in 1967, Stewart returned to the stage to play a few songs during each of the band’s concerts. Although he was never officially reinstated, Stewart remained an essential musical element to the Stones’ signature sound.
Stewart was a peculiar piano player. He wasn’t a blues purist, but his inclinations leaned towards more traditional genres like jazz, R&B, country, and rock ‘n’ roll. Stewart had a famous aversion to minor chords, calling them “Chinese chords” and largely refusing to play them. With his boogie-woogie style firmly established, Stewart had no desire to go outside his comfort zone, even when he played on some of the Stones’ most experimental albums.
All told, Stewart played on every Stones LP from their very first up to 1986’s Dirty Work, with only the sonically psychedelic Their Satanic Majesties Request, the folk-heavy Beggars Banquet, and the punk-infused Some Girls not featuring a keyboard feature from Stewart. At the time of his death in 1985, Stewart had played on some of the most iconic Rolling Stones of all time.
If you’re looking to see just how important Ian Stewart was to the sound of The Rolling Stones, here are the essential tracks that Stewart brought to life over his two decades of officially unofficial membership in the band.
Essential tracks from Rolling Stones founder Ian Stewart:
Even though he was less than a year removed from his official termination as the band’s piano player, the Stones still clearly coveted Stewart’s ivory skills. So much so that one of their earliest singles, 1964’s ‘Stoned’, puts Stewart a the front of the mix as the lead instrument. A fairly basic blues shuffle, ‘Stoned’ puts the spotlight mostly on Stewart, who admirably rises to the occasion.
Stewart’s skills weren’t confined to just the piano. Even though Stewart favoured the acoustic instrument and the straightforward blues style, he was also willing to engage in the garage rock romps that the Stones busted out in their early years. Stewart’s organ playing on ‘Stupid Girl’ bolsters the song’s main hook in an intuitive way that came naturally to Stewart.
‘Honky Tonk Women’
The greatest part about Stewart’s relationship was that he wasn’t just the road manager who got thrown a bone every once in a while. Stewart was a key contributor who played on some of the band’s most iconic tracks. Without realizing it, millions of listeners got to hear Stewart’s pumping piano. It was almost like Stewart had never left the band because, in a big way, he never did.
Stewart was at his best when the Stones blended a kaleidoscope of different genres into their potent mix of rock and roll. Stu himself was a fantastic rock player – able to add dynamics and precision to the band’s rollicking thump. His playing on ‘Brown Sugar’ is subtle but essential, crashing in during the choruses right under Richards’ stinging guitar lines and popping up whenever the song needs a good kick in the pants.
Like we mentioned earlier, Stewart wasn’t the genre snob that he sometimes gets stuck with. He might have had an aversion to slower songs and minor keys, but Stewart could also adapt his boogie-woogie to rock, blues, and even country music. Stewart doesn’t compete with the array of guitar lines on ‘Dead Flowers’, but simply sits back and adds another sonic layer on top of the country honk.
‘It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It)’
The recording of ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll’ was notoriously loose, featuring players like David Bowie, Kenney Jones, and Ronnie Wood a few years before his official tenure in the Stones began. Every once in a while, Stewart’s twinkling piano line pops out of the mix, and its strident tone just boosts the old-school rock bonafide of ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll’.
‘Bad to the Bone’
Stewart rarely played with anybody other than the Stones. His particular style of piano felt natural with the Stones, and since he still had tour managing commitments within the band’s camp, his time was frequently occupied. But one of the surprising places that you’ve probably heard Stewart’s playing that wasn’t on a Stones record was on Goerge Thorogood’s ‘Bad to the Bone’, where Stewart was briefly deputized as a Delaware Destroyer.
‘Boogie with Stu’
Stewart’s other most famous bit of extracurricular activity came when he contributed to Led Zeppelin’s sessions for Led Zeppelin IV. Recording in the Headley Grange country house required a mobile recording studio, and when Stewart delivered the Stones’ mobile recording studio, Zeppelin cajoled him into playing on both ‘Rock and Roll’ and an outtake that would later surface on Physical Graffiti, the eponymous ‘Boogie with Stu’.