Darryl Jones: The unknown Stone

Keith Richards and Darryl Jones Image copyright Reuters

As The Rolling Stones prepare to release an album paying homage to the black blues musicians who inspired them, is it time their long-serving black bass player won more recognition?

Darryl Jones has been with The Rolling Stones for more than two decades now but never appears in official band photographs.

He has played on just about everything they have recorded since 1994, including the band's new album, Blue and Lonesome, and is an integral part of their live show.

But when the time comes to take a bow, Jones often melts into the background with the other members of the Stones' touring band.

The four core members - Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood - always take centre stage.

Does the bass player, an American roughly two decades younger than his British band mates, still feel like the new boy?

"I don't think that really ever goes away," he says, laughing.

"In terms of the membership of this very small and exclusive club I guess I'll always be like the new guy. In terms of playing with the band, though, I feel like a bit of an old hand now."

Image copyright Getty Images

Jones was not the obvious choice to replace original member Bill Wyman, who quit the band acrimoniously after 31 years, saying he was fed-up with touring.

A highly-rated jazz player, who cut his teeth with Miles Davis, he confessed in early interviews that he had not listened to much of the Stones' music prior to joining them.

But at the auditions he bonded with Charlie Watts, a fellow jazz man, and his easygoing personality enabled him to take his place within the Stones operation without upsetting the delicate balance of egos at its core.

Darryl Jones

  • Started his career in his native Chicago before joining jazz legend Miles Davis' band in 1983
  • Now 54 years old, he became the Rolling Stones' bass player in 1994
  • Has appeared on every Stones album since 1994's Voodoo Lounge, including Stripped (1995), Bridges to Babylon (1997), No Security (1998), A Bigger Bang (2005) and 2016's Blue and Lonesome
  • Has also played with Sting, Madonna, Eric Clapton and blues/funk band The Stone Raiders

The question of when he was going to be made a "full member" was there from the start.

Asked about it in a 1994 interview, Keith Richards said: "We'll kind of see how it works, but as far as I'm concerned personally, and the boys in the band, if you're on stage with us, you're a Rolling Stone, and that's all there is to it."

Richards is generous in his praise for his onstage sparring partner in a new documentary currently in production, Darryl Jones: Like A Rolling Stone, describing the bass player as "my solid left arm".

"I look upon him as my big brother now, even though I am older than him," he says, with a throaty cackle.

Image copyright Getty Images

But Jones remains a hired hand - much the same as Ronnie Wood was when he officially joined the band in 1976, as a replacement for guitarist Mick Taylor.

It took the former Faces man more than a decade on wages before he was bumped up to full membership and an equal share of the profits.

After more than 50 years together, the Rolling Stones remain one of the biggest live acts in the world - their last three outings, including this year's Zip Code tour, with its groundbreaking stop in Cuba, have raked in a total of $401m (£321m) in ticket sales, according to Billboard.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Rolling Stones arrive in Havana in March

Has Jones ever had any discussions with the band about becoming a full member?

"It has not really come up very often," he says.

"Obviously that would be a really wonderful thing for a person like me. I have been a sideman for more than 30 years now.

"I think most musicians, somewhere deep down inside, even if they are sidemen, or if they are hired players, there is a desire to be in a band. And I would not be being completely honest if I said that it would not be wonderful, it would not be amazing, to be considered and, you know, jump into this organisation as a full member.

"But that is not a decision I am in a position to make."

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Media captionThe Rolling Stones talk about bass player Darryl Jones

Jones adds that he would not be party to any discussions about membership and the issue has no bearing on his commitment to the music.

"I just play the best that I can and the rest of it I don't have any control over."

He declines to reveal how much he is paid.

Darryl Jones is not the first Rolling Stones musician to have been kept firmly in the background.

Keyboard player Ian Stewart, who died in 1985, was with them from the start but his "square" look did not fit with the image manager Andrew Loog Oldham was trying to create for the band in the 1960s.

Image copyright Archive Photos
Image caption Keyboard player Ian Stewart (far left) was with the Rolling Stones from the start
Image copyright Evening Standard
Image caption By 1964 Stewart had been sidelined in publicity photos

"He was kept on the sidelines because he didn't look the part," says music journalist and veteran Stones watcher Mat Snow.

"Everybody knew he was in the band. The band knew he was in the band. But he didn't appear in publicity pictures.

"There is the Rolling Stones as a musical unit and there is the Rolling Stones as a brand."

In Snow's view it's ironic that Jones remains the "sole regular black member" of a band that has always played black music. But he argues Jones does not fit the Stones' brand as well as Ronnie Wood, who was part of the same 60s London blues scene "even if he wasn't part of the original inner gang".

Paul Trynka, author of a recent biography of the late Stones founder Brian Jones, also says it is "strange" that Darryl Jones doesn't participate in photo shoots.

But, he goes on: "It seems to me what they are trying to do is keep a very strict demarcation. 'Here are the Stones, we own the brand, here is this fellow, he plays bass, he's not a part of the brand of the Stones.'

"There is this tradition in black R&B music that people just hire somebody for a certain amount of time."

The Rolling Stones have always been careful to acknowledge their debt to the blues musicians who inspired them as young men.

Image copyright Hulton Archive
Image caption Howlin Wolf was among those to capitalise on the British blues boom

There was something about the music of downtrodden black Americans who had migrated north to Chicago in search of work that spoke to the teenage Jagger and Richards, in their bedrooms in suburban Dartford.

The music had fallen out of favour with black audiences in America, who preferred the more upbeat and aspirational sounds of Motown and James Brown. But the Stones and their tight circle of fellow blues purists - centred initially on The Station Hotel in Richmond, and Eel Pie Island in the Thames - sparked a global revival of the form, handing second careers to black blues artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin Woolf.

The 12 songs on their new album, all drawn from the 1950s Chicago blues scene, would have been a "set list" for The Stones in the early 1960s, before they started writing "pop songs", Keith Richards recently told Jones, as they listened back to the new record in Richards' hotel room.

"They have never really moved far away from that," says Jones, who is from Chicago and was briefly a part of the city's blues scene. "They have made a lifelong study of this music."

Image copyright Reuters

Jones has always pursued side projects in addition to his work with the Stones. He is currently working on a solo album and, as a singer and songwriter, he feels he has something to say "about the state of things, as the world is today".

His parents were part of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and taught him "to be very proud to be a young black man", he says.

Now, as an older black man in modern America, he says, taking a few seconds to find the right words, "I live in a world of white supremacy, basically."

But, he adds, "at the same time I have the kind of attitude that I was taught by my parents that a person is not judged by their colour, a person is judged by their character.

"And so when I look at the Rolling Stones and the music they are playing I am not so segregated about it. These guys can play blues as well as anybody I have played blues with so, for me, that is the main point."

As a small boy in Chicago, he can clearly recall hearing The Beatles and The Rolling Stones for the first time on an "all-black" radio station.

His ambition back then was to "play with the best bands, with the best artists" - and in the idiom of blues and rock and roll, he says, the Rolling Stones are "high on that list".

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