Despite having been in the band for just 7 years, nobody can deny the tremendous role Lewis Brian Hopkins Jones, born February 28, 1942, and died the 3rd of June 1969, had on the history of the Rolling Stones. Suffice to remember the words of his bandmate Bill Wyman, “ He formed the band, chose the members, gave it a name, picked the type of music we would play, and got us our first gigs…” In the first years of the band Brian Jones was the real engine behind the Stones, we could say he was the authentic ‘Rolling Stone’ or ‘stray bullet’ of the group, he who gave the band its bad-boy look, and its musical identity. Over time he would be replaced as leader by the tandem of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, but would continue leaving a deep imprint on their music, not just as guitarist, but also several other instruments such as harmonica, sitar, piano, mellotron, clarinet, flute, theremin, and the marimba.
When we talk about the other Stones’ guitarists, besides Keith, the argument is always who was most important, Brian Jones, Mick Taylor, or Ron Wood. It’s clear to me, the most important was the first, and not because he was the best player, that would be Taylor, neither was the oldest, evidently that would bey Woods, but because he left the biggest mark on the band. And not only because he created it, but because his musical input was the most important. Maybe Taylor was at his best when it comes to records and magnificent solos, but it was Jones who turned them into blues fans and, in a certain way, he was also their first mentor, being the guy who taught Richards to play the guitar better and showed Jagger how to play harmonica. Not to mention his pure contributions musically, can you listen to Paint it Black and not think of the sitar? What would become of Little Red Rooster and No Expectations without his slide guitar? Even one of their first singles by Jagger/Richards, The Last Time, is heavily influenced by Jones’ riff.
But let’s return to the beginning, in 1962 Jones formed part of a small group of English blues musicians together with people like Alexis Korner and the future member of Cream, Jack Bruce. He was one of the most brilliant guitarists at the time and possibly the first British guitarist to use the slide. If that wasn’t enough, he had a bad reputation, with 2 illegitimate children behind him, without a job, getting by with his guitar on the streets under the pseudonym Elmo Lewis (a hommage to the author of Dust My Broom, Elmore James), and all this before turning 20.
On May 2nd 1962 the Jazz News put out an ad looking for musicians to form an R&B band. Answering the ad was an aspiring young singer called Mick Jagger who took his childhood mate, Keith Richards, with him. They were both accepted by Jones, in spite of the fact that he didn’t share the love for Chuck Berry that Richards had, and this would lead to giving up on two more purist blues members. Two months later, on stage at the Marquee Club in London, they had their first live appearance as The Rollin’ Stones ( a name quickly chosen by Jones a couple of days earlier, in tribute to his hero Muddy Waters) which comprised along with Jones: Jagger, Richards, Ian Stewart, Mick Taylor and Mick Avory. The guitarists used 2 Harmonys, Richards a Meteor and Jones a Stratone.
For some time Jones was making 5 pounds more a week than the rest for his ‘leader’ role, and when the others found out, the troubles began. By then 3 more had joined the group Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, , and Andrew Loog Oldham had already taken on the role of band manager. It was him who created the opposing image to the Beatles as bad boys, which, in Jones’ case, fit to perfection. After signing with Decca, the label that had passed on the Liverpool lads, The Stones released their debut record Come On, a Chuck Berry cover, June7, 1963.
In the early days, Jones, Jagger and Richards shared a flat in Chelsea. It was there that the guitarists forged a strong friendship listening and playing songs by Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, copying very similar styles. The main differences were that Jones took care of the slide bits as on I’m a King Bee, Little Red Rooster and Can’t be Satisfied, as well as the main rhythmic bits ala Bo Diddley, whereas Keith played most of the conventional solos as well as anything related to Chuck Berry. It was in that flat where Jones taught Jagger how to play the harmonica, an instrument they would share on the first recordings, with the guitarist shining with the harp on songs such as Not Fade Away, I Just Want to Make Love to You, Now I’ve Got a Witness and Good Times, Bad Times.
However, things were going to change in the band, Oldham figured there was much more money to be made writing their own material instead of covers by “ black men from the middles age” and proposed to the duo of Jagger and Richards the task of composing. So they wrote Tell Me, Heart of Stone and The Last Time. When it went to #1 on the charts, it was clear that the balance of power in the band had gone from Jones to the two composers. Nonetheless, the guitarist would continue bringing great things to the group, on The Last Time, Jones plays the well-known riff that makes you think that he also wrote this one, the same with Get Off of My Cloud. Many of these efforts, as well as many of the most important gigs in the early years (like the TAMI show), he played his most-known guitar, the Vox Teardrop. In 1964 Vox made him a custom guitar to promote the brand, it was the Mark III, known as the Teardrop due to its namesake shape, then there was the Mark IV, VI, and the XII. It’s the guitar most associated to this r musician, although he also played a Gretsch White Falcon, a Firebird, and a Epiphone Casino.
But the fact was that Jones suffered a severe blow when he saw that he was ousted as leader, and his dustups with Mick and Keith, especially with Jagger, became more evident, to the point where he sabotaged the live version of Satisfaction by playing Popeye the Sailor instead of his immortal riff. However in the U.S., where the same song opened the doors to fame, he became the most famous member of the band. Just as his beloved Muddy Waters and Elmore James vanished from the band’s repertoire in favour of songs by Jagger and Richards, his interest in the guitar was fading gradually. Yet, Jones was a musician with an innate talent for learning to play new instruments and that would prove fundamental in refining the band’s sound in this new era they were entering.
It was his moment of glory, his development as a multi-instrumentalist allowed him to play an important role in the band’s sound on records such as Aftermath (the first composition entirely by Jagger and Richards, where he’s the instrumental star with examples like Lady Jane, where you can hear him play the dulcimer, or Under My Thumb where he plays the main riff on a marimba) and Between the Buttons can attest to. On the personal side, he became the prince of ‘swingin’ London and aristocratic rock. His turbulent relationship with Anita Pallenberg, which had begun in 1965, with their assaults and later reconciliations, became legend, but while they were together, all eyes were on them. It is said that Bob Dylan titled his record Blonde on Blonde because of the lure that emanated from this couple of blondes who shared the same hair-do and attire in the coolest and most extravagant manner.
It was then when he started abusing liquor and drugs that were lessening his damaged mental capacities. In the psychedelic years Jones was still making strong efforts on the sound with Ruby Tuesday, Let’s Spend the Night Together, 2000 Light Years from Home and Citadel, showing off his use of the mellotron, wind instruments, and the organ. By the end of 1967, after a Moroccan trip, Anita hooked up with Richards after a fight with Brian. Seizing the moment when Jones was ill, they left him lying in his bed and didn’t look back. They would be together for 13 years and raised 3 children.
Brian’s self-esteem didn’t recover from that trauma and his interest in the band dissipated. On the recording of Beggar’s Banquet he skipped many of the recording sessions and when he did show up, he seemed little interested, despite it being a return to his roots and beloved blues. It was this album where he made his last important effort to the band by playing an incredible acoustic slide on No Expectations, maybe his best 6-string work, a reminder of how far he could have gone if he had paid more attention to the instrument.
Later on he would return to Morocco and recorded with local musicians. His health and physical appearance were deteriorating as you can see on the recording of Rock and Roll Circus. At the start of 1969, the former leader of the Stones was physically broken and hardly made an appearance on the new recording Let it Bleed. Ironically his last collaboration was on You Got the Silver, a Richard’s song about Anita. On June 8th, when Jagger, Richards, and Watts went over to his house to fire him, Brian wasn’t surprised. On June 10th, he issued a statement which read: “Because I no longer see eye to eye with the other Stones over the discs we were cutting, I have a desire to play my own brand of music. We have agreed that an amicable termination of our relationship is the only answer.”
Less than a month later his lifeless body was found floating in his pool. At the beginning of his career he had declared, “ Yes, I want to be famous, and no, I don’t want to live till 30”. He achieved both. He died at 27, being the first member of his generation to inaugurate the cursed club of 27 which would soon be with him, Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, and Cobain. He wasn’t a good person but certainly a fine musician, yet still, nearly 50 years after his death we continue talking about him because the Rolling Stones wouldn’t be the Rolling Stones without him.