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Ian Stewart – The forgotten Rolling Stone honoured by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

May 2023

The Rolling Stones are considered by many to be one of the greatest rock and roll bands in history. Formed in London, England, in 1962, the band would quickly rocket to stardom as the “Bad Boys” of rock and roll; the as the antithesis to the Beatles.

After going through a couple of bass guitarists and drummers, the band settled into their classic line-up in 1963, consisting of singer Mick Jagger, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones, guitarist Keith Richards, bass guitarist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts.

Forgotten by all but true Rolling Stones fans is the sixth member of the original line-up: pianist Ian Stewart.

For those who do not know Ian Stewart, or “Stu” as he was known by the band, he was a founding member of The Rolling Stones, but was removed from the official line-up in May 1963, because he didn’t fit the image their new manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, wanted to portray.

Despite his dismissal, Stu remained a part of The Rolling Stones organization, taking on the role of road manager. He would also continue to contribute musically as one of the many backing musicians employed by the band, playing piano and occasionally percussion instruments, both in the studio and on most of their concert tours until his untimely death of a heart attack in December 1985, at the age of 47.

Stu was considered such an important part of The Rolling Stones that when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, the band insisted that Stu be inducted along with the rest of the band.

Shortly after Stewart’s death Mick Jagger said: “Stu was the one guy we tried to please. We wanted his approval when we were writing or rehearsing a song. We’d want him to like it.”

In his 2010 autobiography “Life”, Keith Richards says: “Ian Stewart. I’m still working for him. To me the Rolling Stones is his band. Without his knowledge and organization … we’d be nowhere.” This echoed his comments in the band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, with both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards paying tribute to their late friend.

Stu was also credited with keeping the band together in the early to mid 1980s, during a period when Jagger seemed more interested in fostering a solo career, becoming more and more estranged from the band and his songwriting partner, Keith Richards.

Born in Scotland, raised in London

Ian Stewart was born in Pittenweem, Scotland, on 18 July 1938, but the family later moved to Sutton, in South London. Stu initially started playing piano at six-years-old, but later took up banjo.

A big ran of rhythm & blues, boogie-woogie, blues and big-band jazz, Stu was working at Imperial Chemical Industries when he was the first to respond to a notice in Jazz News, posted by Brian Jones on 2 May 1962, looking for musicians to form a rhythm & blues group.

Stu and Jones were soon joined by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, bass guitarist Dick Taylor (later of Pretty Things) and drummer Mick Avory (later of The Kinks). It was this initial line-up that first performed at the Marquee Club as the Rollin’ Stones, on 12 July 1962.

In addition to his role as pianist for the band, Stu was essentially their booking agent, since he was the only one with regular access to a phone, that being the one on his desk at Imperial Chemical. He also used a van that he bought to shuttle the band and their gear to gigs. After his removal from the official line-up, Stu continued this part of his role, becoming their tour manager, something he would use to his advantage in later years.

Stu enjoyed playing golf and would book the band into hotels with golf courses whenever he could. Keith Richards recalls: “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.

In addition to playing piano on tours in 1969, 1972, 1975–76, 1978 and 1981–82, Stu also contributed piano, organ, electric piano and percussion to all Rolling Stones albums released between 1964 and 1986, along with other keyboard players like Nicky Hopkins, Billy Preston and Chuck Leavell, missing only Their Satanic Majesties Request, Beggars Banquet and Some Girls.

Stu also made musical contributions outside of The Rolling Stones, including playing piano on two Led Zeppelin songs, Rock and Roll and Boogie with Stu, on Howlin’ Wolf’s The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, the Bad to the Bone album by George Thorogood and the Destroyers, the song Bad Penny Blues, along with Charlie Watts, from the album These Kind of Blues by The Blues Band, and was a founding member of the short-lived Rolling Stones off-shoot group Rocket 88 in the late 1970s, with also with Watts.

While Stu may have missed out on the fame and fortune of being an official member of The Rolling Stones, he didn’t seem too troubled by it. In 1976, Stu stated, “You can squawk about money, but the money the Stones have made hasn’t done them much good. It’s really gotten them into some trouble. They can’t even live in their own country now,” a reference to the fact that the Stone members had to live outside of the United Kingdom in tax exile, to minimize their tax obligations.

He also spared himself from the effects of the band’s hard-living, drug and partying lifestyle. “I think he looked upon it as a load of silliness,” said guitarist Mick Taylor, who replaced Brian Jones in the line-up from 1969-1974. “I also think it was because he saw what had happened to Brian. I could tell from the expression on his face when things started to get a bit crazy during the making of Exile on Main Street.  I think he found it very hard. We all did.”

Stu may be gone, but contributions to the group and his legacy accentuate why he is deserving of far greater recognition. His posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is one small gesture to that end.

Sources: Ian Stewart (musician) – Wikipedia, “Life”, by Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones – Wikipedia.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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