Simply titled, Stu, as everyone called him, it’s a story of heartbreak, loyalty and affection.
If anyone in rock music was ever betrayed, hurt and pushed aside it had to be Stu. Because he wasn’t just a part time pianist-cum-road manager with the Rolling Stones. He was, according to Keith Richards, the man more responsible than anyone for forming the band in the very beginning.
“He basically hand-picked all of us,” says Richards, remembering his own audition and how Stewart had been insistent that they should later have Charlie Watts on drums. He was the man who used his phone at ICI, where he worked as a shipping clerk in the early Sixties, to get the group some of their first bookings. And he was the man who, through a friend, arranged their first recording session.
But he was also the man who suddenly found himself demoted by their first manager, Andrew Loog Oldham. Overnight Stu went from life as a Rolling Stone, with a golden future beckoning, to a job as their van driver.
Having seen the Stones play an early gig in Richmond, Surrey, in 1963, the eighteen year old, self-opinionated Oldham laid the law down. “I can only see five Rolling Stones,” he told Mick Jagger and Brian Jones. “Not six.”
Ian Stewart, the pianist with his Desperate Dan jaw, and tough square build, was too ugly to be a pop star, he insisted. He was four years older than Mick Jagger and he spoiled the look of the band, which, in those days, was thin, androgynous and effete. Stewart could play on the records and do radio, Oldham insisted, but he couldn’t appear on TV or in any photographs.
Actually it wasn’t for Oldham to sack Stewart. That was the decision the Stones themselves had to take. They didn’t like doing it, but no-one confronted Oldham. They agreed to the treachery.
And why? Because they were young. None of them could have imagined the lifelong ramifications of their actions. They suddenly saw a slight chink of a possibility and they went for it. How many of us can honestly say we wouldn’t have done what they did? But for Stu it meant being permanently cast into the shadows of rock and roll.
He was devastated, Cynthia Dillane, his wife at that time, says in the book.
Would it have been different if he’d combed his hair another way, he wondered. Having suffered unhappy teenage years during which an abnormal growth of his chinbone led eventually to corrective surgery, after which his teeth were wired up for months as the bone reset, he couldn’t not be conscious of his looks.
When the Stones rejected him he could have walked away from them, bitter that the band he’d helped mould had deserted him. But he didn’t. Stoically, he accepted the situation.
Working quietly in the background he stayed loyal and proud of the Rolling Stones, at first driving them the length and breadth of the country in his pink Volkswagen van, later on helping establish them on the world stage. And though Andrew Oldham slyly didn’t record his piano contribution to the Stones’ first hit Come On, after that he always played along with them on their records, or to be more accurate, whenever he felt like it.
“He always chose which songs he wanted to play on,” Richards remembers. “He chose.” Although his photograph might not have been on the front of the albums, it was Ian Stewart who played piano on Satisfaction, Honky Tonk Women, Brown Sugar and dozens more. And if he didn’t like a song, he would just walk away from the piano, saying “I’m not playing this, it’s got Chinese chords in it.”
He was the most enigmatic of men with a dry sense of humour, but it’s through him that we catch a glimpse of life behind the scenes with the Stones, where the pecking order was never quite what it seemed. When Brian Jones became a total liability, Stu had a large say in who replaced him. Later on Ronnie Wood thinks Stu’s influence helped him into the group.
On one studio occasion when Stu took his seat at the piano for a song, Wood heard Mick Jagger quietly tell him they didn’t plan to have piano on that particular track. Stu just kept on playing. Jagger didn’t argue.
It was true that he was an employee while the other Rolling Stones were partners: an unknown while the others were stars. But as the calm at the centre of the storm, he could keep confidences, and had more than a share in the decisions and the music. When they were being foolish, he and he alone would tell them so, the superstars he always called his “little three chord wonders”.
Totally unpretentious, he hated it when Truman Capote, Princess Lee Radzivill and other New York socialites lionised the group. He loathed the Stones’ psychedelic period, too, and he, the only one of them, never took drugs.
“What a waste,” he would exclaim as he would try to waken the drug soaked, ever-sleeping Brian Jones who seemed always to be preparing for his early death. But when Keith Richards was busted for heroin in Toronto it was Stu who stayed with him when Richards couldn’t leave the city, Stu who coaxed him into a recording studio there. He didn’t have to stay, Richards realised later, but he did.
Born in Scotland, but brought up in Surrey, there was a strange dichotomy in Stewart’s world. Addicted to Chicago blues, he liked the English suburban lifestyle, steam-trains, semi-detached houses and golf clubs, which is about as un-Rolling Stones as you can get.
“I used to curse Stu and his golf,” Richards remembers fondly. “We’d be playing in some town where there’s all these chicks, and they want to get laid and we want to lay them. But Stu would have booked us into some hotel about ten miles out of town. You’d wake up in the morning and there’s the links. We’re bored to death looking for some action and Stu’s playing Gleneagles.”
The Rolling Stones’ girl friends were most puzzled by his position in the band. “I just couldn’t understand why he wasn’t one of the Rolling Stones,” Jerry Hall says. “I felt sorry for him that he didn’t get everything on a silver platter like his mates. But he didn’t resent it, which was even more admirable.” Marsha Hunt is appalled that it wasn’t until after his death that she realised he hadn’t just been a roadie.
Gradually over the years as the Rolling Stones’ empire expanded and the group became, in their words, “the biggest rock and roll band in the world” Stewart, who became more handsome as the years passed, began to find new outlets for his talents. When not working with them, he played and recorded with his blues heroes, B. B. King and Howlin’ Wolf, and with his friends, guitarists Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.
Then finally he began again, putting together his own group, Rocket 88, with Charlie Watts, Paul Jones and Jack Bruce to play the blues in pubs around West London for £20 each a night. They may all have been famous names by then, but in other ways it was just as it had been in the beginning.
Money meant little to him: the music was everything. Although he’d been shattered when dropped from the band, he probably recognised later that the starry life wasn’t for him. He never sought it. Perhaps Andrew Loog Oldham had been right after all.
Then one day in 1985 he died of a heart attack while waiting in a doctor’s surgery in London’s Harley Street. He was 47. Keith Richards had been waiting for him in a hotel, wondering why he was late. Then the phone call came from Charlie Watts.
“That guy,” says Richards, “had the biggest heart that I’ve ever known. A guy that puts a band together and then gets kicked out of it, and then says, ‘I’ll drive the van’. I don’t think it was ever obvious but he was the daddy of us all. He made the band.”
There are never happy endings to these stories, but a few years after his death Stu was recognised, if only among rock’s cognoscenti, when he was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in America, as “Ian Stewart---The Rolling Stone.” And now there’s this book. At last, admittedly a couple of generations late, Ian Stewart is being seen for what he was, something rather more than a bit part player in the story of the Rolling Stones. He was never that.