Jimi Hendrix is staring intently at Mick Taylor’s fingers.
Taylor is caressing a Gibson and looks to be nonchalantly playing the kind of melodic-yet-dangerous guitar lines he used to punctuate what many rock aficionados consider to be the best Rolling Stones records ever—and which were apparently also capable of transfixing Hendrix, the baddest guitarist of all-time.
This moment is captured in a backstage photo, snapped at Madison Square Garden during The Stones’ run of shows in advance of their late-’60s LP Let It Bleed. Taylor contributed guitar to only a couple of tracks on that record, but his fluid playing made a massive impact on the live album that documented the tour, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! as well as the subsequent, sublime studio albums Exile on Main St. and Sticky Fingers.
Taylor was the virtuosic foil to Keith Richards’ enlightened-rogue guitar vamps: the hornet-buzz bottleneck on “All Down the Line” and live version of “Love In Vain”; those Santana-like lines during the “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’” coda. Hell, even the most rewind-worthy bonus track The Stones included in their 2010 Exile re-issue, “Plundered My Soul,” featured tasty, newly recorded Taylor licks.
But, of course, Taylor quit The Stones after cutting just two more albums with the group—the erratic Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll. A few years later, The Stones would right the ship with ex-Faces guitarist Ron Wood in tow to make Some Girls, a disc that’s at least in the same zip code of awesomeness as Sticky Fingers and Exile. But The Stones’ music would never again quite reach its Taylor-period heights. And neither would Taylor, who aside from playing on Bob Dylan’s Infidels album and tour, didn’t exactly go on to scorch the earth.
“That’s the mysterious thing,” says renowned pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman, who’s standing in his Brooklyn apartment and staring at a large tree outside his window. “That’s why I always found [Taylor] as an individual so fascinating because it’s clearly too coincidentally that all the best Stones material happened when he was in the band.”
In the past, Taylor has indicated he quit The Stones because of a lack of songwriting credits—on tracks such as “Sway” and “Moonlight Mile”—as well as becoming bored with The Stones’ musical direction by the mid-’70s.
“I think if you look at him and Ron Wood and compare them,” Klosterman says, “it doesn’t really seem to be a question over who is a more talented guitar player. It’s definitely Mick Taylor. But Ron Wood likes being a member of The Rolling Stones, and I don’t know if there was ever any indication that Mick Taylor enjoyed that experience.”
Klosterman, author of the 2011 novel The Visible Man, also wonders how Taylor’s age—he was 20-years-old and about six years Richards’ junior when The Stones cherry-picked him from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1969—impacted his working relationship with Keef. Klosterman always feels Taylor’s six-string prowess may have inspired Richards to play better, and subsequently come up with more jaw-dropping parts, such as those on the brassy, propulsive 1971 tune “Bitch.”
“But I don’t know,” Klosterman says. “There also is always the possibility that was the period in Jagger and Richards’ life when they were just at their creative apex, and it happened to be that [Taylor] was in the band, and if Ron Wood joins the band in 1970 or 1969 or whatever the same thing happens.”
“The song is really what it comes down to, in my opinion,” insists Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson. The Crowes also enjoyed a golden period during the tenure of a gifted lead guitarist [Marc Ford], and then subsequently underwent transitional, wilderness years after parting ways with said lead guitarist before finding another fantastic fit in Luther Dickinson. “The song is the lightning in the bottle. And if everyone serves the song instead of themselves, it always works out great, musically. We’ve been fortunate. Luther came in and was really respectful of that.”
Robinson has probably forgotten more about The Rolling Stones than most people will ever know. After all, though they eventually developed their own distinct sound, the Crowes’ 1990 debut Shake Your Money Maker remains the best Stones record since Tattoo You.
“The thing about Mick Taylor,” Robinson says, “is there was such a warmth and a beauty to how he played. There was a flowery sort of overtone, but it was deep and heavy at the same time, if that’s even possible. I mean, Mick Taylor really had that.”
Today, Robinson—who last year released a Neil Young-meets-Pink Floyd solo LP, Through a Crooked Sun—calls while taking a walk in Atlanta. Robinson’s first memory of hearing Mick Taylor’s playing was when he was introduced to Exile as a kid growing up in nearby Marietta.
“I think Mick really brought an earthiness to their sound that they hadn’t seen before,” Robinson says. “And back then, I didn’t think about who played what and what played who, I was just so enthralled with the music. One of my favorite moments on record is Mick Taylor on Exile. The whole thing.”
As for Richards’ opinion of Taylor, he once told Guitar World magazine, “Mick Taylor is a great guitarist, but he found out the hard way that that’s all he is.” But in his 2010 memoir, Life, Richards admits, “I was in awe sometimes listening to Mick Taylor.”
Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford saw The Rolling Stones play live with Taylor at the Boston Garden during an infamous stop on volatile and decadent 1972 Stones tour. He’s calling from Boston before a multi-night homecoming stand on the tour preceding Aerosmith’s upcoming LP Music From Another Dimension.
“Mick was so musical, and he had a knowledge and respect for the blues,” Whitford says. “It was a great, great concert. He was a serious player. And he just stood there. He wasn’t interested in trying to fill [Jagger] or Keith’s shoes, even partially. I think at that period, Keith preferred to chuck away at the most incredible rhythm guitar I’d ever heard in my life. When [Aerosmith] got inducted into the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame, we got to jam with Keith, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone else attack six strings the way he does.”
Brian Jones, Taylor’s predecessor in The Stones, was known for his knack for sprinkling nifty studio pixie dust—a sitar here, a marimba there—rather than powerful live guitar solos. As the early-’70s issued in an era of arena rock populated by a second generation of louder, blues-based bands such as Led Zeppelin, Taylor’s value to The Stones in a mega-concert context cannot be overlooked.
“When you get into big rooms, it’s a little different technique all the way around,” Whitford says. “You’ve got to reach further, and the music’s got to be tighter. And I think Mick brought a lot to the table with that. He was a tight, focused player with a tight, focused sound and I think that helped with [The Stones] sound and how they projected out to people.”
Interestingly, Klosterman and Whitford both name “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’” as a favorite Taylor-period Stones moment. Robinson cites the warehouse rehearsal footage of “Tumbling Dice” from the bootleg tour film Cocksucker Blues.
Whitford says he could “always relate very easily” to Taylor, who when compared to Richards, was definitely lacking in the stagecraft department. “My guitar partner [Joe Perry] is much more flash. You get me up there, and I’m just trying to get it right. I always had a real respect to what [Taylor] did. We live on the same street, you know?”