He was a member of the coolest band in the world, yet he was never scared to be square. It’s one of life’s great ironies that those card-carrying rock and roll outlaws, the Rolling Stones, would have got nowhere without the “vision”, as Keith Richards puts it, of the unlikely looking Sixth Stone. The Fife-born Ian Stewart was not your usual skinny, pouting rock star but a stocky, Neanderthal-jawed, one-time ICI shipping clerk in cardigans, polo shirts and Hush Puppies who nailed down brilliant boogie-woogie piano and became the group’s musical conscience and reality check. Always known as Stu, he was one for golf rather than groupies, a real-ale enthusiast and a rhythm and blues purist with a jazz background and a no-nonsense, headmasterly air who joshingly put the other Stones in their place as “three-chord wonders”. The epitome of the musician’s musician, he played on every Stones album, with the exception of Beggars Banquet, from 1964 to the 1986 Dirty Work, released the year after his death.
Ian Stewart died at the age of 47 in December 1985 from a heart attack while waiting to be examined for breathing difficulties by a Harley Street doctor. It’s another irony that the unstoned Stewart, despite being drug-free through all the band’s well-documented years of debauchery, should die young. According to Brian Jones’s replacement, Mick Taylor: “Stu looked on it [drug-taking] as a load of silliness.” Stewart’s lifestyle mistake was a much more mundane one, according to Ben Waters, the man who is now effectively his musical heir on the rhythm and blues circuit: “By all accounts, Stu had a terrible diet — that’s what let him down.”
Stewart was closest to his fellow hardcore jazz nut Charlie Watts and Keith Richards, who admired his ability to be his own man as much as his musicianship. And Richards’s recent memoir Life describes the “shattering” news of Stewart’s death as “the hardest hit I had ever had, apart from my son [Tara] dying [of cot death].” Two months later, in February 1986, the Stones played a tribute gig with Stewart’s other band, Rocket 88, at London’s 100 Club, and in 1989 they asked for his name to be included when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But Stewart’s chequered story proves the marketing power of the manager to demote someone whose face didn’t fit the image: such enthusiastic blueshounds as the young Rolling Stones were no different in this respect from the manufactured pretty-boy bands of today. In 1963, a year after Stewart had booked the band’s first rehearsal in a Soho pub, the Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, decided to drop the Scotsman from the line-up. With a large undershot jaw, the result of a childhood illness, Stewart was judged too ugly and, with four years’ advantage on Mick Jagger, too old for a band that was being marketed as the leather-clad, bad-boy alternative to the besuited Beatles.
But instead of flouncing out, the rock-steady Sixth Stone decided to stay on to become a session musician and road manager in his own band. The new role enabled the image-averse Stewart to avoid all the hassle of the spotlight while hanging on to his cherished role as musical guru, a shrewd strategy from the man who never wanted the baggage of stardom.
It has taken just over 25 years since Stewart’s death for an album tribute to emerge to this backroom powerhouse, put together by another boogie-woogie man from a younger generation. The 37-year-old Ben Waters was just eight when he saw Stewart play live at a West Country gig arranged by his aunt and uncle, Eva and Ray Harvey, the parents of the singer PJ Harvey and old friends of Stewart’s. Waters, a fan of Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis from childhood, became obsessed with imitating Stewart’s style, so much so that he was asked to play piano in Rocket 88 after his death.
“A lot of pianists are quite staccato,” says Waters, “but Stu had a very rolling, full sound. That’s why he was so good in bands, because he brought it all together, and the Stones were always at their best when he played with them.”
As Mick Jagger put it: “When Stu was playing, the band swung a lot harder than when he wasn’t.”
Towards the end of last year, Waters decided to try to fulfil his long-held dream of making an album in memory of Stewart. In what he calls “a combination of luck and coincidence” within the tight-knit world of rhythm and blues enthusiasts, he persuaded the Stones to guest-star on Boogie 4 Stu (a title borrowed from a track Stewart played on for the Led Zeppelin album Physical Graffiti) alongside Waters’s cousin P J Harvey, jazz saxophonists Willy and Alex Garnett and Don Weller and 76-year-old blues shouter Hamish Maxwell.
Although Waters, who has worked with Jagger’s brother Chris for years, had played piano for parties at Mick and Jerry Hall’s Richmond house, he had a much closer connection with Charlie Watts, who plays drums in his band, the ABC&D of Boogie Woogie. “Charlie came on board and then told me, ‘You’ve got to ask Keith too’,”says Waters, recalling how he went on to recruit Ronnie Wood, Bill Wyman and Mick Jagger in what became a kind of domino effect.
Jools Holland, Waters’s long-term mentor who also guests on the album, offered his Deptford recording studio free of charge, although Waters had to fly to New York with the hard drive to record Richards’s guitar and vocals while Jagger emailed back his contribution – characteristically snarling vocals and harmonica on Bob Dylan’s Watching the River Flow – from the South of France. With proceeds going to the British Heart Foundation, the album can boast the first Wyman recording with his former fellow Stones since 1992 — something that perhaps only the ghost of Ian Stewart could have pulled off. As Wyman acknowledged in a London concert last month to launch the album: “We wouldn’t go on stage until Stu said, ‘OK, you shower of shits, you’re on’.”
There was, Waters says, a potentially sticky moment when Richards wanted to do the vocals on the same song, Worried Life Blues, that Wood had just recorded. “So I asked Keith how he would feel if he and Ronnie alternated verses. And Keith said, ‘Fine’.”
The album has clearly been a labour of love for Waters, who looks a little like his role model and is equally happy to chase the music rather than the fame. “Stu was so grounded that he probably propelled the band to a higher level, because they could always rely on him.” Which is not a bad epitaph for anyone.
‘Boogie 4 Stu’ is released on April 11 by Eagle Records