On Ian Stewart: The Sixth Stone

It is our great pleasure on Travalanche to sing the praises of the unsung, and few were more vital to a major show biz act, whilst remaining more obscure, than Ian Stewart (1938-1985) of the Rolling Stones.

Some will know the name, many others won’t, and perhaps most will have a vague feeling that they kind of know it but can’t quite place it. It’s there, but at the fringes. There’s no point in being suspenseful about it: Stewart was an original member of the “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band”. He played piano and other keyboards from the band’s inception until his death in 1985. That’s right — until 1985. But he stopped being an official member of the band as early as mid-1963, at which time he became the band’s road manager. He was both the Rolling Stones roadie and default piano player, but only an “official” member of the band (entitled to a full profit share) for that first year, after which time he was a salaried employee, still a member of the organization but more anonymously. This early photo of the band tells the story:

This photo is doubly interesting, for not only is Stewart prominent, but who’s the tiniest, most hidden and apparently least consequential person in the frame? Keith Richard! So pictures DO lie, it turns out! At any rate, it’s already widely known that the key Stones had the chutzpah to fire the guy who actually founded the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones. What’s lesser known is that prior to Jones’ firing, the group had already fired (or demoted) the guy with the SECOND amount of seniority. Ian Stewart was the first musician to join after Jones, and about a month before Jagger and Richard. His authentic sounding boogie woogie and blues piano playing was one of the anchors of their sound, not just in the early years, but until the day he died. So what happened?

Well, Andrew Loog Oldham was brought in to be the Stones’ manager, and one of his first moves was this bid to alter Stewart’s status. Why? The thinking was twofold: 1) a sextet is too large, and 2) of the six, Stewart fit the band’s image least.

And one has to concede the truth of both points. Then, as now, the ideal number of people in a rock band in terms of star-building is FOUR. And there are many examples of successful bands with FIVE members, although already in most cases the wider public can’t name every member. But six would be pushing your luck. Of the major classic bands of that era, only one sextet (the Jefferson Airplane) springs immediately to mind. There is a logic to this kind of managerial thinking. When the ensemble gets too large, some members are going to be anonymous anyway. With a smaller combo, you have a chance of making stars of every member in addition to the group as a whole. Each individual star is its own revenue stream.

As for Stewart not fitting in? It’s only true visually, but that’s the part that mattered to Oldham. He was slightly older and slightly larger than the other blokes (or most of them, Bill Wyman was actually two years older than Stewart). But he was also slightly squarer. Regard the group photo above. Alone of the six, Stewart is the only one still wearing the brushed-back Teddy Boy hairstyle popularized in the 1950s; the others were already doing the ragamuffin moptop thing that characterized the coming decade. Further, when the band was starting up, Stewart was the only one holding a “responsible” 9-to-5 day job. He never went in for drugs and orgies and the irresponsible side of rock and roll. He was just a conscientious and excellent musician and that was his reason for being there.

So it was presented to him as a sort of fait accompli, that he could remain with the organization with a reduced status, or not at all. Many would not have taken that deal, but he did, and was seemingly content with it. He became the guy who moved the other guys’ instruments and amps from place to place, set them up, made sure they were in good working order. He oversaw transportation and accommodations, and acted as a liaison between the band and the people they encountered on the road, the staff at the venues, local authorities, etc. AND he was the principal person playing keyboards and piano on most of their records and often in live performance.

This naturally meant much less fame and wealth, which meant fewer of the perks that go with those things. So why stand for it? Well, some people apparently LIKE that! Some people don’t want a lot of fuss and attention, they just want a satisfying role to play. And as a non-official member of the band, Stewart actually had more creative control and freedom, oddly enough, than “official” members Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, who were treated like mere sidemen by the stars of the band anyway (Wyman quit in 1992; Watts died in 2021). Those guys actually had to play on every song whether they liked it or not. Stewart had the luxury of only playing on the songs he wanted to, mostly straight ahead blues and country numbers. When a number didn’t feel like it suited him, he passed on it, and in later years the chore went to someone like Nicky Hopkins or Billy Preston.

But listen to the records. Ian Stewart plays and plays noticeably on most of their great albums and tracks for over two decades. He was an integral part of the band’s sound, and he plays like a Rolling Stone, loose but unerring. I love to listen to a tune like “Under My Thumb”, for example, where every member of the band is present in this relentless, groovy jam, Stewart’s piano chords a part of the rhythmic tapestry with the marimba, fuzz bass, and drums. Or “Flight 505” where he is literally given a chance to shine with his own solo turn at the top of the tune. Better known examples include later hit singles like “Honky Tonk Woman” and “Brown Sugar”. He also played occasionally with other bands and musicians like Zeppelin, Howlin’ Wolf, and his own band Rocket 88.

So he’s an interesting figure. In Beatle terms, he’s sort of a combination of Pete Best, Klaus Voorman, Mal Evans, and Billy Preston rolled into one: sacked from the line-up, yet retained to play with the group as needed, yet also a good and trusted friend who happened to be the roadie, yet also the keyboard player who’s as good as any official member. Naturally, I also have a good deal of Stewart pride about his existence. (Stewart being my given surname). Though raised in England, Ian Stewart was born in Fife. While Rod Stewart is rock’s most famous member of our Clan, and there’s also Al Stewart (“Year of the Cat”) and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, I am most partial to this calm and contented pseudo-Stone, whom the other five all said they couldn’t do without, even after firing him. He is also one of the most important of all Scottish-born rockers. Many followed later in the ’80s (Big Country, Simple Minds, Annie Lennox) but Ian Stewart was probably second only to Donovan as a Scots pop star in his own day.

Sadly, Stewart was also (after Jones) the second Rolling Stone to die. He was only 47 when felled by a heart attack in late 1985. The irony is rich here that notorious party monster Keith Richard will likely outlive the straight-laced Stewart by at least four decades. Come to think on it, there is perhaps something in the “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry” philosophy.