Hear Demos of Keith Richards Singing Lead Vocals on Rolling Stones Classics: “Gimme Shelter,” “Wild Horses” & More

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Tom Waits and Kei­th Richards Sing Sea Song “Shenan­doah” for New Pirate-Themed CD: Lis­ten Online

The Rolling Stones Release a Soul­ful, Nev­er-Heard Acoustic Ver­sion of “Wild Hors­es”

Mick Jag­ger Tells the Sto­ry Behind ‘Gimme Shel­ter’ and Mer­ry Clayton’s Haunt­ing Back­ground Vocals

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Mr. Echo says:

    Kei­th’s solo ver­sion of Wild Hors­es is not a demo, but an infor­mal pri­vate record­ing made 12 years after the Rolling Stones had released the song.

    The X‑pensive Winos were not formed for the Chuck Berry trib­ute movie (filmed in 1986, released in 1987), but for Kei­th’s solo work from 1988–1993.

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