In the early seventies, at the height of their powers, unforgettable hits seemed to tumble out one after another from The Rolling Stones, solidifying Jagger and Richards’ reputation for elemental, immediate songwriting that seemed to cut through more baroque studio productions of the late sixties and seventies and deliver the goods raw. As Brian Jones’ influence waned, Richards’ dark, raunchy riffs took over the band’s sound, and even when Jagger's vocals are near incomprehensible, as in much of Exile on Main Street, his peculiar intonation—part fake Delta bluesman, part sneering delinquent schoolboy—gets across everything you need to know about the Rolling Stones’ ethos.
The immediacy of the Stones’ recordings is largely an artifact of their trial-and-error method in the studio. Unafraid of last-minute inspiration and unorthodox technical experiments, they built songs like “Gimme Shelter” from inspired demos to powerful anthems over the course of many versions and mixes. We’ve told the story of that song’s last-minute inclusion of Merry Clayton’s stirring vocal performance. Now, at the top, hear an early demo of the song lacking not only her voice, but Jagger’s as well---at least in the lead spot. Everything else is there: the tremolo-soaked opening riff, the haunting, reverb-drenched “Oooo”’s. But instead of Jagger’s faux-Southern drawl suddenly breaking the tension, we get the much more subdued voice of Richards, pushed rather far back in the mix and sounding pretty underwhelming next to the final album version.
It’s not that Richards is a bad singer—here he almost captures the cadences of Jagger, if not the projection (we do hear Jagger’s voice backing his). It’s just that we’ve come to associate the song so closely with Jagger’s quirks that hearing anyone else deliver the lyrics is a little jarring. On the other hand, Richard’s unadorned acoustic demo of “Wild Horses,” above, gets right to the heart of the song, sounding more like his friend Gram Parsons’ mournful early version than the later 1971 release on Sticky Fingers. (Hear another acoustic demo here, with Jagger on vocals.)
These two tracks represent rare opportunities to hear Richards take the vocal lead on Stones tracks, though he would begin releasing solo work in 1978 and fronted his own band, the X-pensive Winos, in 1987, assembled in tribute to his hero Chuck Berry. Just the year previous, the Stones released Dirty Work, a high point in an otherwise creative slump for the band. The album’s first track, “One Hit (to the Body),” became its second big hit, and you can hear a scratchy, lo-fi demo version, with Keith on lead vocals, above. A thread at the Steve Hoffman Music Forums points us toward many more demos of Stones songs with Keith’s vocals, from outtakes and demos of Voodoo Lounge, Talk is Cheap and other albums. Many of these recordings show how much Richards was responsible for the band’s vocal melodies as well their signature guitar tones and rhythms. Amidst all these demos—of varying degrees of sound quality and states of inebriation—one song in particular stands out, and it’s not a Stones song.
Above, Richards’ delivers a Bourbon Street take on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” His quiet voice haunts the song, again pushed so far back in the mix you have to strain to hear him at all as he trails in and out. The recording, from 1977, leaked in 2008, along with Richards covers of other standards by Hoagy Carmichael and Perry Como. “The songs,” writes The Guardian, “feature melancholy piano, an even more melancholy Keef and sound like he's doing an impression of early Tom Waits.” Fitting, then, that Richards would collaborate with Waits in 2006, on a recording that sounds like he’d been practicing for it his entire career.