Mick Taylor, the free verse of the Stones

By Sergio Ariza

"It's just that demon life has got you in its sway"  

Mick Taylor
played with fire and got burnt. He was part of “the greatest rock n roll band in the world” in its best period and was the best guitarist, technically, that they have had, doing solos that Keith Richards, Brian Jones and Ron Wood could only dream about; but in contrast to them, Mick Taylor was never really a Rolling Stone (at least in his literal meaning or in his lifestyle). He left the job that all the other guitarists (men?) all over the world yearned for because to be a Rolling Stone ‘wasn’t his thing’, his thing was to play guitar like the angels and to do solos that stuck in the mind like a hook. His professional relationship with Richards created one of the most important double guitar acts in history and their styles were complementary but, personally, they couldn’t be more different. The Stones did their best tours and albums with Taylor, and also defined their definitive sound; Keith was the architect of that sound but the Stones’ riffs never had, neither before nor after, a more outstanding soloist than Taylor.

Mick Taylor, who was born on 17 January 1949, began playing guitar very young. By the age of 14 he was devouring albums by Elmore James and Freddie King, playing along to them on the record player, and two years later he was on stage with one of the fathers of the British blues scene, John Mayall, replacing the most famous guitarist in the country, Eric Clapton. Clapton had not turned up for a performance, Taylor was in the audience and knew Mayall’s albums, so after a pause he went up to the stage and asked if they would let him play and, as Clapton’s Les Paul was already there, Mayall decided to run the risk; the boy fulfilled his role to perfection. So much so, that one year later when both Clapton and his replacement, the great Peter Green, left to form their own bands, Mayall decided to call him and make him a member of the Bluesbreakers at just 17 years old.

His first album with the band, in which John McVie was still the bassist, was Crusade, and on tracks like Snowy Wood he showed that Clapton’s boots were not too big for him to fill. He made a greater contribution to the following two albums of the band: Bare Trees and Blues From Laurel Canyon, released in 1968. Taylor began to find himself as a soloist despite being less than 20. At that moment he was already playing a 59 Gibson Les Paul Standard that he had got from Keith Richards himself; fate is as whimsical as that.


Among his most interesting achievements during his time with Mayall were: his use of the wah wah on No Reply (on which the influence of Hendrix can be heard); the expressive solo using feedback, that sounds inspired by Clapton, of I Started Walking (one of the ‘suites’ that filled the whole of the A side of Bare Trees); his first flirtations with a Stratocaster on Vacation and Walking On Sunset; and the evidence that he had become a ‘slide maestro’ with The Bear and 2401.


At the start of 69 Taylor left Mayall; his two predecessors had left to form two of the most important rock bands in the country - Cream and Fleetwood Mac - so Taylor was not too bothered about his future. He didn’t form a band but instead joined “the greatest rock n roll band on the planet”. Until he joined the Stones they were not called that, but with the inclusion of this guitarist the title fitted to perfection. Their last album had been their best to date, Beggar's Banquet, and they were finishing another that was second to none, Let It Bleed, and were ready to return to the stage and reclaim the crown of rock. Taylor would be the icing on the cake of this golden period that would extend until his exile in France.

Taylor received the call after his ex-boss recommended him to the Stones, who were thinking about substituting Brian Jones as he had lost all interest in the band and was in the middle of a self-destructive relationship with drugs. On 24 May he went to the London Olympic studios and began to exchange 'licks' with Keith Richards on the last song that they recorded for Let It Bleed, Live With Me. The result was magic, both guitarists melded together to perfection and the Stones entered a new era. For many this period was the best of their career, above all if we consider that on this song another key man in the history of the band would make his first appearance: the saxophonist Bobby Keys.

Two weeks later the guitarst received the call that the majority of guitarists would love to have; he was an official member of the band. In one of his first sessions he recorded the incredible Jiving Sister Fanny, which showed that they had chosen the right guitarist. That song shows a glimpse of how raw they would sound in the 70s; sounding more like the basement where they recorded Exile On Main Street than Let It Bleed, whick is why they probably left it out of the album. What it would appear on it was his slide on Country Honk, for which he used the same Selmer that he had used on 2401 with Mayall. Much more important was his contribution to the rock versión of that song, Honky Tonk Women, which would be the first song of ‘the Taylor period’ that would see the light. It was released on 3 July 1969, the same day that they found Brian Jones dead in his swimming pool. As I said, it was the end of an era...

The official start of the new era took place two days after in London’s Hyde Park, in front of 250,000 people. Not a bad way for a young man of 20 to be introduced to the world as the substitute of the man who had started the band. But Taylor didn’t flinch when he put God’s guitar on his shoulder at 16, and he was not going to do it then. Next to a giant photo of Brian Jones, with his trusty SG in his hands, Taylor launched into a frenetic version of I'm Yours, I'm Hers in which the whole world could see that the Stones now had a 'guitar hero' in its ranks. It was with that SG which Taylor completed almost the whole of the first tour, which gave them their title as “the greatest rock n roll band” , and that finished in the tragic gig at Altamont where a Hells Angel stabbed a spectator. Mick Taylor could already see what he was getting himself into. This tour is reflected in the fantastic Get Yer Ya Ya's Out, one of the best live records in history, where we can enjoy Taylor on numbers as spectacular as Street Fighting Man and Midnight Rambler; which can be seen as the definitive version.

Now as a member with full rights he recorded Sticky Fingers, another absolute classic. It was here that Taylor had his best moments as a Stone, from the country touches, almost pedal steel, that he achieves with his Gibson ES-345 on Dead Flowers, to the two incredible solos with his Les Paul (the first with slide and the second my favourite of his whole career) on the marvellous Sway, without forgetting his exquisite solo, with a nod to Santana, on the long jam that closes Can't You Hear Me Knocking and his fantastic contributions (like the inclusion of strings) on the lovely end of Moonlight Mile.


The Stones were on a roll and their next work would be the culmination of this incredible stage, Exile On Main Street. Recorded in 1971 in exile on the French Côte d'Azur, it was here where Taylor started to become addicted to drugs. That was not too difficult, bearing in mind that they recorded the album in Richards’ mansion, where heroin was as available as the daily bread. So much so that at times Taylor pulled the lead of his guitar and watched as one of Keith’s friends fell with the same roll on his bleeding forearm. The result was, at the same time, the best album of his career (and one of the five best of all times) and the end of that golden period. The huge party followed by the big hangover. Still, the contributions of Taylor continued to be excellent as his incredible solo on Shine A Light and his mastery with the slide on All Down The Line, Stop Breaking Down and Soul Survivor clearly demonstrates. It was also the only time that the Jagger/Richards tandem gave him part of the credit on a song, Ventilator Blues.

After that orgy of creativity and drugs things were never quite the same within the band. Despite an excellent introductory tour, when the Stones have possibly never sounded better, in some ways the chemistry of the band fell apart, with each one going their own way, and things went sour between Jagger and Richards. The following two albums were a step below their great classics and Taylor began to feel increasingly unhappy. His ‘strange departure’ was due to various reasons. On the one hand he believed that his contributions to the compositions were not recognised, and on the other the bad environment was affecting him, specifically with Richards complaining that he played very well live but was useless in the studio. He also saw that the band was disintegrating and was not going to last much longer and lastly, but not least, their lifestyle was affecting his health and he feared that his health, and probably his life, was at risk. 

So in December 1974 the bombshell dropped, he left the Rolling Stones, something that his Satanic Majesties could never understand. Previously he had signed his marvellous ‘goodbye letter’ with the solo for Time Waits For No One, his favourite of his time with the band. The Stones replaced him with Ronnie Wood, whom Taylor had helped on his first solo album, and despite albums as interesting as Some Girls, they would never again play at the same level as they did with Taylor. That said, it could be said that Taylor lost the most, as he never had the excellent material of Jagger and Richards to stand out with his solos.

In 1975, in a certain way, he returned to put himself in Clapton’s shoes, by joining Jack Bruce’s band with whom he went on tour in 1975, although he didn’t record anything. In 1977 he collaborated with Little Feat live and with Gong in the studio; and in 1979 his solo debut album appeared - which confirmed that Taylor was a much better musician than composer. In the 80s he toured with John Mayall again and met Bob Dylan with whom he played on two of his best songs of the decade, Tight Connection to My Heart and Sweetheart like you, besides being his guitarist on his 1984 tour that would be reflected on the album Real Live. With such material, Taylor again gave the best of himself.

A guitarist can stand out on not very good material but they need great material to give the best of themselves. And this is how the best of Taylor would come, revisiting his great moments like Sway together with Carla Olson. Because there is no doubt that Taylor is technically the best guitarist who has passed through the Stones, playing things that Keith Richards could only dream of. But it has to be said that Keith composed Satisfaction, Sympathy For The Devil, Jumpin' Jack Flash and Midnight Rambler, while Mick Taylor has only played (marvellously) on them; which, let us be honest, still makes him one of the best guitarists in history.