He's acknowledged as perhaps the greatest rhythm guitarist in rock & roll, but Keith Richards is even more legendary for his near-miraculous ability to survive the most debauched excesses of the rock & roll lifestyle. His prodigious consumption of drugs and alcohol has been well documented, and would likely have destroyed anyone with a less amazing endurance level.
On-stage with the Rolling Stones, he epitomized guitar-hero cool as the quiet, stoic alter ego to Mick Jagger's extroverted frontman, a widely imitated image made all the more fascinating by his tightrope-walking hedonism. Yet that part of Richards' mystique often overshadows his considerable musical legacy. Arguably the finest blues-based rhythm guitarist to hit rock & roll since his idol Chuck Berry, Richards knocked out some of the most indelible guitar riffs in rock history, and he did it so often and with such apparent effortlessness that it was easy to take his songwriting skills for granted.
His lean, punchy, muscular sound was the result of his unerring sense of groove and intuitive use of space within songs, all of which played a major part in laying the groundwork for hard rock. Never intensely interested in soloing, Richards preferred to work the groove using open-chord tunings drawn from Delta blues, and his guitars were often strung with only five strings for cleaner fingering, which made it difficult for cover bands to duplicate his distinctive sound precisely. For all his rock-star notoriety, Richards was perfectly happy in the confines of a group, and thus was the last Rolling Stone to release a side-project solo album; his 1988 solo debut appeared more than a quarter century after he co-founded the band that earned him the nickname "Mr. Rock and Roll."
Richards was born December 18, 1943, in Dartford, Kent, on the southern outskirts of London. When he was just an infant, his family had to be temporarily evacuated from their home during the Nazi bombing campaign of 1944. In 1951, while attending primary school, Richards first met and befriended Jagger, although they would be split up three years later when they moved on to different schools. By this age, Richards had already become interested in music, and was an especially big fan of Roy Rogers; in his very early adolescence, he sang in a choir that performed for the Queen herself, although he was forced to quit when his voice changed.
Around that time, he became interested in American rock & roll and began playing guitar, with initial guidance from his grandfather. Behavior problems at school led to Richards' expulsion in 1959, but the headmaster thought he might find a niche as an artist, and Richards was sent to Sidcup Art School. There he met future Pretty Things guitarist Dick Taylor, who at the time was playing in a blues band with Jagger. Discovering their new mutual interest, Richards and Jagger struck up their friendship all over again, and Richards joined their band not long after. Over the next couple of years, that band evolved into the Rolling Stones, who officially debuted on-stage in the summer of 1962 (by which time Richards had left school).
The rest was history - initially a blues and R&B cover band, the Stones branched out into original material penned by Jagger and Richards. The duo took some time and practice to develop into professional-quality songwriters, but by 1965 they'd hit their stride. "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" made them superstars in the States as well as the U.K., boasting one of rock's all-time great guitar riffs, which Richards played into a tape recorder in the middle of the night and didn't recall writing when he heard the tape the next morning.
With their menacing, aggressively sexual image, the Stones became targets for British police bent on quelling this new threat to public decency, and Richards suffered his first drug bust in 1967 when police raided his residence and found amphetamines in the coat pocket of Jagger's girlfriend, singer Marianne Faithfull. Richards was convicted of allowing the activity on his premises and sentenced to a year in prison, but public furor over the trumped-up nature of the charges and the purely circumstantial evidence prompted a hasty reversal of the decision. The same year, Richards hooked up with bandmate Brian Jones' former girlfriend, model/actress Anita Pallenberg; although the two never officially married, they remained together (more or less) for the next 12 years, and had two children (Marlon, in 1968, and Angela, in 1972).
After the death of Brian Jones in 1969, the Stones became a more straightforward, hard-rocking outfit, and Richards' guitar took center stage more than ever before. By this era, he'd taken to calling himself Keith Richard, simply because he thought it sounded better without the s. Privately, the band was sinking further into decadence, clearly audible on its early-'70s masterpieces Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. However, Richards' burgeoning heroin addiction began to affect the consistency of the band's recordings for the next few years.
Additionally, he ran into more legal troubles; his French villa was the subject of a drug raid in 1972, as was his British residence the following year. (Rumors dating from this era that Richards had all of his blood replaced in a cleanup effort, while entertaining, were not true.) Over 1976-1977, Richards entered the studio for a few solo sessions, but the only result to see the light of day was the Christmas single "Run Rudolph Run" (issued in 1978). Perhaps the lack of productivity was due to the fact that Richards was in the middle of the most difficult period of his life.
In 1976, Richards' infant son Tara, his third child by Pallenberg, died suddenly; the official cause was SIDS, although unsubstantiated rumors about the couple's drug abuse playing a factor circulated as well. In early 1977, Richards was busted for coke, and faced the most serious charges of his life when, in Toronto, he was caught in possession of heroin. He narrowly escaped serving jail time, agreeing to perform a charity concert for the blind and enter drug rehabilitation in the United States. The scare convinced him to clean up, and when the Stones returned in 1978 with Some Girls, it was acclaimed as their strongest, most focused work in years, and helped rejuvenate their popularity as an arena rock attraction.
Things went sailing along smoothly for the next few years, and Richards even officially married for the first time in 1983, wedding Patti Hansen, who would bear him two more daughters, Theodora and Alexandra (he and Pallenberg had finally split in 1979). However, around the same time, Jagger decided the Stones should take a new direction more in line with contemporary pop; Richards refused, and Jagger embarked on a solo career that began to take priority over the Stones. It ignited a very public feud between the two, and rumors of the Stones' imminent demise swirled over the next few years. When Jagger refused to tour behind 1986's Dirty Work in order to record his second solo album, Richards retaliated by going out on his own, forming a backing band he dubbed the Xpensive Winos.
Richards released his first solo album, Talk Is Cheap, in 1988. Both critically and commercially, it was a far greater success than Jagger's Primitive Cool. Reviews were generally quite complimentary, calling it a solid rock & roll record; plus, buoyed by the minor hit single and MTV favorite "Take It So Hard," Talk Is Cheap went gold. Richards embarked on a supporting tour which produced the concert album Live at the Hollywood Palladium, released three years later, and his success convinced Jagger to return to the fold (of course, the relative failure of his own solo venture helped).
Their future thus seemingly assured, the Stones had their biggest success in some time with the 1989 album Steel Wheels and its blockbuster supporting tour. In the early '90s, Richards and Jagger once again began working on solo projects, but this time with the understanding that nothing took precedence over the Stones; Richards' second studio album, Main Offender, was issued in 1992, and again received fairly solid notices, although it didn't get quite the same commercial exposure. Since then, Richards has concentrated on recording and touring with the Stones.