Soho, London, 1962, man walks into a pub. He’s carrying a guitar case and wearing a look of blissful ignorance about the fact he’s en route to an encounter which will change his life and the course of rock music. The man’s name is Keith Richards and, really, we should let him tell the story…
“I come in and there’s an upright piano facing the window overlooking the street. Stu’s got his back to me, he doesn’t know I’m in the room. What amazes me is that while he’s sitting down, playing all the shit, looking out the window, I come up behind him and there’s this stripper walking by outside. But his eyes aren’t following her, as mine are, they’re fixed on his bike chained to a parking meter. Mind you later on, he did go: ‘Phew, look at that!’”
Stu was Ian Stewart, a boogie-woogie piano man who would be quietly forced out of the Rolling Stones before they were able to summon up there own phew moments with groupies and have grapes peeled for them – but he continued to play on their records and gig with them right up until his premature death in 1985 at the age of 47.
He rates a mere footnote in rock chronologies, mainly because he never dined out on his fame while he was alive and his Pittenweem birthplace, in the best Fife traditions, didn’t like to make a fuss, even though the fishing village remains quietly proud of the “sixth Stone”.
But now a new book, called simply Stu, is according him proper recognition, and the surviving Strolling Bones, their contemporaries and camp-followers, lovers and staf∗∗∗∗rs, are falling over themselves to acclaim as nothing less than the quietly-beating heart and soul of the band some still can call the greatest in the world.
It could be argued that Brian Jones can lay the greatest ownership claims to the Stones. He placed the ad in a jazz magazine which was answered by Stewart; Richards and Mick Jagger came along later. And he booked the room above Soho’s Bricklayers’ Arms for those first rehearsals. But Richards tells it differently.
“There have been arguments about this since we started, and it goes on. In my opinion, whose band is it? It’s Stu’s band. He was the first one there at the beginning. Without his input, his little extra bit of push, in those first few months it would have probably dissolved. In a way you could say that Stu discovered the Stones and forged them.”
Stewart was born in Pittenweem in the East Neuk, on a farm owned by his Uncle Jack. His father John, an architect, and mother Annie, were Scots who were required – because of John’s work for the Army to live in Surrey, but were so determined that Stewart should be able to call himself 100% Scottish that Annie travelled north for the birth.
“Stu himself was immensely proud of his roots,” says William Nash, who has edited the tribute. He’s collected masses of anecdotes from those who knew him, among those his widow Cynthia Dilane, who reveals that as a boy he spent all his holidays on the farm helping his uncle. “The interesting thing was that in the parlour, as they called it, the front room, which was very rarely ever used, there was an old piano.
Nash also tracks down Stewart’s cousin Marianne Meldrum, who recalls him “thumping away” on a tune he’d picked up in an instant. “I always used to tell him to stop making that terrible noise. I remember our grandmother saying: ‘Ian will never be a musician. Fetch me some cotton wool for my ears.’”
From Pittenweem parlour to Madison Square, that was Stewart’s musical journey. It properly started according to Jeff Beck, when he emerged as “the cornerstone of the whole Surrey/Richmond thing – Mr. Blues”.
Stewart’s day job was as a clerk with ICI and – remarkably as it seems now – he was the nascent, skinny Stones’ link with the wider world of musical possibility. “He had a telephone [in the offices at Millbank, London] and we could use it,” remembers Richards. “He networked the band without us really realising.”
But his influence on their earlier sound as piano player was even more considerable. Richards again: “He was so solid and we were so flaky”. And Jagger adds: “When he was playing the band swung a lot harder than when he wasn’t.”
The earliest previously – unpublished pictures of Stewart as a young musician, unearthed by Nash for the book show him looking pretty cool behind shades, strumming a banjo in a ribbed sweatshirt and slacks. The solid chin is determinedly Scottish.
Jack Bruce, Cream’s bass-playing powerhouse from Pollock, Glasgow, says: “Stu should have been the lead player of the Stones. And playing the banjo, I mean, what can be hipper than that?”
Bruce may be biased. As a teenager, he also played boogie-woogie piano as a means of attracting girls: “That was what you had to do if you were a short Scot.” But Stewart’s look is important to the story: it’s one of the reasons he didn’t ‘fit in’.
Marsha Hunt is another who remembers the swinging 60’s, and Jagger’s former lover paints a vivid picture of Stewart: “Everything about Stu was incongruous with London’s rock scene. When guys had long locks and were cramming their balls into skin-tight breeks, his hair was short and he wore baggy trousers. When everyone was sliding in expensive boots from Chelsea Cobbler, he was wearing those sensible shoes my postman wore.”
Hush Puppies. And – before they were street-cool – Lacoste T-shirts. “Those bloody crocodile shirts,” says Charlie Watts, who reckons Stewart’s khaki trouser-cut went in and out of style twice during his lifetime. Fashion, you will have guessed, was unimportant to Stewart; what mattered was the music. But the issue wasn’t just about the cloths.
Stewart wasn’t as pretty as Jagger and Jones, even before he became death-warmed-up, Richards. Nash reveals that a childhood illness requiring his jaw to be wired up left its mark, psychologically as much as anything, and he was sensitive about his appearance.
“It was Andrew’s [Loog Oldham, Stones manager] decision that Stu didn’t look the part recalls Bill Wyman. “When people talk about keeping the band to five because fans wouldn’t remember six, I mean, that’s all rubbish.”
Loog Oldham takes the rap for the decision, more or less square on the chin. Nobody said: ‘Not with our band, Andrew, it’s all or nothing – Stu stays’. I got what I wanted; nobody confronted me over it. We were young, invincible, the group could say it was Andrew, which it was, and none of us really had the experience of being hurt or hurting each other. The slaughter had been bloodless, except for the obvious pouring in Ian Stewart’s heart.”
How did it affect him? One theory is that this Fifer of few words – variously described as “quiet…warm…loveable” in the book – would have been far too self-conscious for the band’s later manifestations as public enemies Nos 1-5, satanic majesties and the rest, and that when he realised that there was no place for boogie-woogie amid all the bacchanalia, he was privately quite relieved that he wasn’t required to be a regular part of it.
Nash is able to dig up a single, probably tongue-in-cheek, comment which contradicts this. “On of my biggest mistakes was not amplifying the damn piano,” Stewart confessed on the first tour. “If I’d put a mic and a amplifier on it, I’d still be with the band.”
The surviving Stones are all gushing in their praise of Stewart and you cannot help feeling they’re assuaging some guilt here. Richards, for one, is able to admit that Stewart showed himself to be a bigger man than the guitarist in accepting the decision. “He turned round and said: ‘I understand that’. He just sort of took a gentleman’s step back in order to promote this band that he’d virtually put together. That’s the heart of a lion, man, to be able to do that. If it had been me I would have said: ‘F∗∗k you…’”
Stewart continued to fulfil crucial Stonesian functions, such as covering up for them when girlfriends showed up and they were busy ‘entertaining’. He alone could tell them when a performance was rubbish. “Come on, my three-cord wonders,” he was fond of calling them. “Angel drawers” is an appellation of more obscure origin.
“He wasn’t self-seeking and he wasn’t trying to impress the Stones, which everyone else was,” says tour manager Peter Rudge.
“He was straightforward, which in the music business is rare – he had this amazing bullshit meter”, adds promoter Jerry Pompili, who’s presumably unaware these are standard issue in Pittenweem.
“He was probably the main man in the Stones, he guided their taste,” reckons Eric Clapton. Well, for a while anyway. But he remained their musical conscience, the link with the bluesy past, while the gigs got more last-days-of-Rome Says Atlantic Records Ahmed Ertegun: “I know very few people today who play the blues as well as he did.”
‘Boogie With Stu’ was his very own customised Led Zeppelin song.
As well as gigging with the Stones, slipping quietly on stage for he songs he liked and off again for those he didn’t, he had his own band, Rocket 88, and had been playing with them – when he complained of breathing difficulties – a couple of nights before he died.
Richards recalls: “I was waiting for him to visit me in my hotel. ‘Just got to pop into town to see the quack’ was the way he put it.” He never showed. Ian Stewart didn’t properly share in the band’s greatest successes or greatest excesses, but Richards insists he wasn’t the loser. “The Stones are Stu’s band,” he reiterates. “Then came the ultimate irony of not being one, which is probably better, you know. I mean, you come out cleaner that way.”
Stu – a Privately Published Tribute to the late Ian Stewart is an edition of just 950 copies, with an accompanying signed and numbered edition screen-print of Stu drawn by Ronnie Wood.