If any one person could be said to embody all the glories and excesses of rock & roll, it’d be Keith Richards. During the heyday of the Rolling Stones — the blues band he co-founded with life-long partner Mick Jagger — Richards steered the group back to their roots in blues and rock & roll, writing such indelible riffs as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” During the 1970s, Richards began to favor ringing open-chord tunings along with an absurdly decadent lifestyle, qualities that could overshadow how he encouraged the Stones to experiment with country, reggae, and dub, not to mention his sharp songwriting skills and quick wit. How Richards complemented Jagger’s strengths as a vocalist, conceptualist, and songwriter was key to the ongoing success of the Rolling Stones, but their close partnership occasionally fractured, most notably during a period in the ’80s when Jagger was eager to carve a niche outside of the Stones. Keith countered by launching his own solo career with Talk Is Cheap, a record that celebrated his devotion to rock and blues basics. Richards supported the set by forming a backing band with drummer Steve Jordan called the X-Pensive Winos and they supported him on 1992′s Main Offender before the Stones settled into a productive, profitable third act with 1994′s Voodoo Lounge. The Rolling Stones proved so reliable over the next few decades that Richards rarely stepped away from the band, but he did pursue other projects, eventually releasing Crosseyed Heart, his third solo album, in 2015.
Keith Richards was born December 18, 1943 in Dartford, Kent on the southern outskirts of London. When he was just an infant, his family had to be temporarily evacuated from their home during the Nazi bombing campaign of 1944. In 1951, while attending primary school, Richards first met and befriended Mick Jagger, although they would be split up three years later when they moved on to different schools. By this age, Richards had already become interested in music, and was an especially big fan of Roy Rogers; in his very early adolescence, he sang in a choir that performed for the Queen herself, although he was forced to quit when his voice changed. Around that time, he became interested in American rock & roll and began playing guitar with initial guidance from his grandfather. Behavior problems at school led to Richards’ expulsion in 1959, but the headmaster thought he might find a niche as an artist, and Richards was sent to Sidcup Art School. There he met future Pretty Things guitarist Dick Taylor, who at the time was playing in a blues band with Jagger. Discovering their new mutual interest, Richards and Jagger struck up their friendship all over again, and Richards joined their band not long after. Over the next couple of years, that trio evolved into the Rolling Stones, who officially debuted on-stage in the summer of 1962 (by which time Richards had left school).
The rest was history — initially a blues and R&B covers band, the Stones branched out into original material penned by Jagger and Richards. The duo took some time and practice to develop into professional-quality songwriters, but by 1965 they’d hit their stride. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” made them superstars in the States as well as the U.K., boasting one of rock’s all-time great guitar riffs, which Richards played into a tape recorder in the middle of the night and didn’t recall writing when he heard the tape the next morning. With their menacing, aggressively sexual image, the Stones became targets for British police bent on quelling this new threat to public decency, and Richards suffered his first drug bust in 1967 when police raided his residence and found amphetamines in the coat pocket of Jagger’s girlfriend, singer Marianne Faithfull. Richards was convicted of allowing the activity on his premises and sentenced to a year in prison, but public furor over the trumped-up nature of the charges and the purely circumstantial evidence prompted a hasty reversal of the decision. The same year, Richards hooked up with bandmate Brian Jones’ former girlfriend, model/actress Anita Pallenberg; although the two never officially married, they remained together (more or less) for the next 12 years, and had two children (Marlon in 1968, and Angela in 1972).
After the death of Brian Jones in 1969, the Stones became a more straightforward, hard-rocking outfit, and Richards’ guitar took center stage more than ever before. By this era, he’d taken to calling himself Keith Richard, simply because he thought it sounded better without the s. Privately, the band was sinking further into decadence, clearly audible on its early-’70s masterpieces Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. However, Richards’ burgeoning heroin addiction began to affect the consistency of the band’s recordings for the next few years. Additionally, he ran into more legal troubles; his French villa was the subject of a drug raid in 1972, as was his British residence the following year. (Rumors dating from this era that Richards had all of his blood drained and replaced in a cleanup effort, while entertaining, were not true.) In 1976 and 1977, Richards entered the studio for a few solo sessions, but the only result to see the light of day was the Christmas single “Run Rudolph Run” (issued in 1978). Perhaps the lack of productivity was due to the fact that Richards was in the middle of the most difficult period of his life.
In 1976, Richards’ infant son Tara, his third child by Pallenberg, died suddenly; the official cause was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), although unsubstantiated rumors that the couple’s drug abuse was a factor circulated as well. In early 1977, Richards was busted for possession of cocaine, and faced the most serious charges of his life when, in Toronto, he was caught in possession of heroin. He narrowly escaped serving jail time, agreeing to perform a charity concert for the blind and enter drug rehabilitation in the United States. The scare convinced him to clean up, and when the Stones returned in 1978 with Some Girls, it was acclaimed as their strongest, most focused work in years, and helped rejuvenate their popularity as an arena rock attraction. Things went sailing along smoothly for the next few years, and Richards even officially married for the first time in 1983, wedding Patti Hansen, who would bear him two more daughters, Theodora and Alexandra (he and Pallenberg had finally split in 1979). However, around the same time, Jagger decided the Stones should take a new direction more in line with contemporary pop; Richards refused, and Jagger embarked on a solo career that began to take priority over the Stones. It ignited a very public feud between the two, and rumors of the Stones’ imminent demise swirled over the next few years. When Jagger refused to tour behind 1986′s Dirty Work in order to record his second solo album, Richards retaliated by going out on his own, forming a backing band he dubbed the Xpensive Winos.
Richards released his first solo album, Talk Is Cheap, in 1988. Both critically and commercially, it was a far greater success than Jagger’s Primitive Cool. Reviews were generally quite complimentary, calling it a solid rock & roll record; and, buoyed by the minor hit single and MTV favorite “Take It So Hard,” Talk Is Cheap went gold. Richards embarked on a supporting tour that produced the concert album Live at the Hollywood Palladium, released three years later, and his success convinced Jagger to return to the fold (of course, the relative failure of his own solo venture helped). Their future thus seemingly assured, the Stones had their biggest success in some time with the 1989 album Steel Wheels and its blockbuster supporting tour. In the early ’90s, Richards and Jagger once again began working on solo projects, but this time with the understanding that nothing took precedence over the Stones; Richards’ second studio album, Main Offender, was issued in 1992, and again received fairly solid notices, although it didn’t get quite the same commercial exposure.
Richards returned to the Rolling Stones for 1994′s Voodoo Lounge and then spent the better part of the next two decades within the Stones’ orbit as they regularly toured and sometimes recorded. During his downtime from the band, Richards indulged his interest in Rastafarian culture by producing and playing on the 1997 album Wingless Angels with reggae veteran Justin Hinds, documenting Rasta spiritual music that falls outside the strict boundaries of reggae. After 2005′s A Bigger Bang, studio work for the Stones slowed — they’d polish up some outtakes for deluxe reissues of Exile on Main St. and Some Girls in the 2010s — allowing Richards to pursue some extracurricular activities. He appeared on various records, usually ones made by his blues or rock heroes, and had a cameo as Johnny Depp’s pirate father in 2007′s Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. His next big project was the publication of his weighty autobiography Life in October 2010. Acclaimed as one of the best rock memoirs, Life was a best-seller and helped shore up Richards’ reputation as a sharp, incisive musician and raconteur. The Rolling Stones began to celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2012, playing a handful of big shows, and they continued touring into 2015. During all this, Richards began work on his third album, once again playing with his band the X-Pensive Winos. Entitled Crosseyed Heart, the record saw release in September of 2015, accompanied by the release of a documentary called Under the Influence. A bit more than 30 years after its release, Richards brought out an expanded edition of Talk Is Cheap that included six unreleased bonus tracks from the original recording sessions. His second solo album Main Offender received a similar deluxe reissue treatment in 2022, appearing in a multi-disc variation containing a previously unreleased live London performance from the X-Pensive Winos from 1992. Richards celebrated its release by reuniting the band for a surprise concert in New York. ~ Steve Huey & Mark Deming