Rolling Stones Legend Keith Richards Makes His Stern Show Debut

Iconic guitarist talks loss of Charlie Watts, relationship with Mick Jagger, and the band’s first new album in 18 years

October 11, 2023

The man, the myth, the bandana-clad legend Keith Richards has finally made his Stern Show debut, much to Howard’s satisfaction. The iconic Rolling Stones guitarist and some might say living embodiment of rock and roll opened up to listeners about his life, his love of music, and why, unlike his decades-long partner in rock Mick Jagger, he will never be knighted. The 79-year-old rock and blues pioneer also had plenty to say about “Hackney Diamonds,” the Rolling Stones first original album in nearly two decades and the band’s only one without founding drummer Charlie Watts, who passed away in 2021.

While it’s been more than two years since Watts’ death, Keith still thinks about his bandmate of nearly 60 years all the time. “I miss Charlie every day,” Richards admitted to Howard as he sat across from him in the Stern Show studio. “As I come out of my bedroom the first thing I see is … a portrait of Charlie on the staircase — I always give him a salute on the way … Charlie Watts was a solid guy.”

Photo: Getty Images for SiriusXM

In fact, when Howard played the new Stones track “Live by the Sword,” featuring Charlie and the band’s former bassist Bill Wyman, Richards was clearly emotional. “Well, it’s the last time that bunch is ever going to be heard together, you know?” he noted.

Even from the Stones’ beginnings in early 60s London, Watts was an essential part of the band. So much so that initially, he was the only one getting paid. “If we didn’t have him, we wouldn’t be able to do the gig, and the gigs paid off right away. And Charlie wanted to do it – that’s what we knew,” Keith said. “Did we luck out with that guy.”

And while many notable musicians paid tribute to Watts when he passed away in 2021, after decades of playing together, Richards is perhaps best qualified to speak on the drummer’s chops. “He had feel, he had intelligence,” he explained. “Rock and roll doesn’t necessarily need the whole battery of drums, it’s got to do with when to not hit … if you’re making music, silence is your canvas.”

Keith also pointed out the subtlety of Charlie’s playing. “He would throw in ideas that you hadn’t really thought of …  [and] at the same time, such a solid beat,” he told Howard. “I never had to worry about anything, which gives the rest of us the freedom to like fly.”

Making his long-awaited Stern Show debut, Keith didn’t hold back as he told Howard about the band’s rich history and the stories behind some of their greatest songs, his love of the guitar, and all things rock and roll, along with much, much more.

While His Guitar Gently Sleeps

The Rolling Stones have sold over 240 million albums and are right up there with the Beatles in the conversation of greatest rock bands of all time, but who knows if any of it would have been possible if it weren’t for one man — Keith’s grandfather, Gus. As Keith remembers it, he was around 12 or 13 years old when his grandfather noticed him staring at the guitar on his shelf. As Gus put the guitar in Keith’s hands, he encouraged him to learn the flamenco standard “Malaguena.” “He said, ‘If you can learn that you’ll be able to play guitar,’” Keith recalled. “It was a few months before I said, ‘I’ve got to take this further.’”

Eventually, Richards got to a point where he was ready to collaborate. “It just started to come to me. And then I realized what I really wanted to do was play with another cat … because basically you’re jerking off by yourself,” he said with a laugh of learning guitar alone in a room. “But what you can do with another cat throwing in licks and like counterpoint and just playing against each other–that opens up a whole world.”

If playing with people like some of his fellow art school classmates opened up a whole world, meeting future bandmate and songwriting partner Mick Jagger on a train platform created an entire new universe. “I mean it wasn’t seriously until Mick and I hooked …. otherwise, it was just a hobby,” he said of the guitar before admitting that meeting Jagger and starting the band changed everything. “There was no possibility of doing anything else.”

Things got so serious with the guitar that he eventually started sleeping with it. “That’s how I got ‘Satisfaction’ — because it was always within hand’s reach,” he said of one of the Stones’ earliest and biggest hits.

Married for 40 years to wife Patti Hansen, Keith might not sleep with the instrument anymore, but he’s with it constantly. “I pick it up just about every day,” he said before explaining the possibilities that come with that practice. “It’s a work in progress. Every time you pick the thing up, there’s the potential of finding something totally new.”

The Secret to Their ‘Satisfaction’

Richards has spent most of his life with a guitar by his side, even while he sleeps. Famously, that’s how he wrote the Stones’ 1965 hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” though he originally intended for the song’s now-iconic guitar riff to be recorded on another instrument.

“[The guitar riff] was a sketch for what the horns should do,” he told Howard. “[Then] Andrew Oldham said, ‘Boom! This’ll do, Bubba,’” Keith continued, explaining the band’s one-time manager and record producer was a more integral part of the Rolling Stones than most people realized.

“He was the one that pulled us all together,” Keith said.

It was through Oldham that Richards met fashion model Linda Keith, who ultimately inspired him to write one of the band’s next big singles, “Ruby Tuesday.”

“This [song] is your farewell to her?” Howard asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” Keith said. “And it’s also the first thing I wrote on piano.”

Howard was amazed by the talent in the room with him. “Even if you guys had stopped right there and never wrote another song, you’d still be legends,” Howard said.

“Sometimes I wish we had,” Keith laughed.

Writing ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘Angie’ for His Family

Discussing marriage and family, Keith told Howard he’s still very much in love with Patti Hansen, his wife of nearly 40 years. “Patti is the whole deal, man,” he said. “I wouldn’t know how to get out of bet without her—or how to get in.”

Richards also confirmed he wrote several hit Rolling Stones songs about his children. “Wild Horses” depicted the guilt he felt when leaving his family to go on the road, while “Angie” was penned after the arrival of his firstborn daughter.

“That’s my daughter, man,” Keith said as Howard played “Angie” in the studio. “This was done in ‘72 when Angela was born,” he continued. “Actually, I was in rehab when I wrote it, in Switzerland.”

Howard marveled at the masterfully written ballad. “I need to go to rehab,” he joked. “Maybe I’ll write a song.”

“I’ll give you the name,” Keith laughed. “You’ll love it.”

Writing for a Friend

The Rolling Stones kicked off their music careers by interpreting American blues songs. And when they started writing original tunes, they were for other artists and not themselves. Case in point, “As Tears Go By,” first recorded by Marianne Faithfull in 1964. “It was our first song that Mick and I had written,” Keith recalled to Howard, admitting it was at the insistence of then-manager and producer Andrew Loog Oldham. “He locked Mick and me in a kitchen and said, ‘Come out with a song.’”

From there, the partners wrote “That Girl Belongs to Yesterday” for crooner Gene Pitney, “All I Want Is My Baby” for Bobby Jameson, and “Surprise Surprise” for Lulu. According to Keith, the experiences were all a part of their songwriting education. “This was our learning process. Mick and me, we’d come out with the weirdest songs and let it fly,” he explained. “I mean, we didn’t think they were any good at all. But at the same time, I think Andrew Oldham was giving us leeway to sort of figure out writing songs isn’t something that happens overnight. You know, you have to learn.”

Eventually, the guys graduated to writing songs specifically for the Stones — like the 1965 hit “The Last Time,” which the guitarist acknowledged borrowed somewhat from a Staple Singers tune. The feeling was rewarding. “We can now write songs for the band, because before that … those other songs, these are all like experiments of how to write a song and put it together,” Keith noted. “‘The Last Time’ was the thing that said ‘Boom, okay, now we’ve got it. All we gotta do now is like get better at it.’”

A Hackney Diamond Gathers No Moss

For as much care as the Rolling Stones put into writing and recording their music, Keith told Howard naming their albums was sometimes an afterthought. In the case of “Let It Bleed” and “Beggars Banquet,” two of their most critically and commercially successful efforts, the titles didn’t mean much at all. Their new album “Hackney Diamonds,” meanwhile,” is taken from a British euphemism for broken glass left behind after robberies in the East London borough of Hackney.

“It’s a smash-and-grab, Saturday night gone mad thing,” Keith said. Though he was pleased with the album name, he said coming up with it wasn’t easy. “The title took longer than the record, man,” he laughed.

“Hackney Diamonds’” final track pays homage to the Muddy Waters song “Rollin’ Stone,” and for good reason. “[The song] was how we got the name of the band in the first place,” Keith said. “[We were] on a phone call … we had a gig. They said, ‘What are you called?’ And there was Muddy’s album cover lying on the floor, and the first track was ‘Rollin’ Stone,’ and we said, [‘We’re the] Rolling Stones’ because the phone call was costing money,” he recalled with a laugh.

Hackney Diamonds” is available on Friday, Oct. 20.