The bluesy, apocalyptic 1969 Rolling Stones track “Gimme Shelter” reaches its juju climax three minutes and two seconds in. Female backup vocalist Merry Clayton turns the word “murder” from the chorus lyric into a gospel-inflected scream that sounds like a soul exploding. Or being born.
This brings us to a simple, bold fact: As undeniably transcendent as The Rolling Stones’ strongest songs are, someone outside of band delivered the musical highlight on many of them.
Simmer down, Stones superfans.
Obviously, there are pyramid-high piles of brilliance in Mick’s blue howl, Keith’s narcotic wallop, Charlie’s jazz beats, Wyman’s concrete grooves and the guitar hosannas Brian, Mick Taylor and Ronnie laid down. The proof jumps out of your speakers. Bona fide.
But The Stones were smart enough to, when a song called for it, get the right outside musicians involved to take a track to apogee. Here are some of the talented people that helped the lads accomplish that.
Can you imagine “Sympathy for the Devil” without those voodoo-ritual congas? African percussionist extraordinaire Rocky Dzidzornu is the man behind those beats. He also laid down congas on numbers such as “Stray Cat Blues,” “Factory Girl” and, notably, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.” Often credited as “Rocky Dijon” in liner notes, Dzidzornu’s sterling resume also includes work with Nick Drake, Stevie Wonder, Taj Mahal and Jimi Hendrix.
Miscredited as “Mary Clayton” for her aforementioned, fantastic background vocals on “Gimme Shelter,” a year later Merry Clayton would cut a cover of the song singing lead.
Legend has it The Stones had originally wanted Caucasian soul singer Bonnie Bramlett to sing Clayton’s parts on “Gimme Shelter,” and Clayton was reportedly brought in because Bramlett was under the weather. Clearly, the hand of fate was involved. Clayton’s other credits include Joe Cocker’s amazing 1969 version of Traffic’s song “Feelin’ Alright” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s flagship track “Sweet Home Alabama.”
In addition to boasting an impressive Afro, Billy Preston contributed funky-ass clavinet to perhaps the most underrated Stones tune of all-time, “Fingerprint File,” a paranoid jam from the 1974 LP It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll that sounds like it was made to soundtrack cocaine binges. Preston also played equally righteous clav on the most annoyingly titled Stones tune of all-time, “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker).” Once dubbed the Fifth Beatle for his keyboard work on The Fab Four’s Get Back album, Preston also appears on Stones tracks such as “I Got the Blues.” But the less said of the 1976 showtune-ish Stones cut “Melody,” in which he shares lead vocals with Jagger, the better.
Bobby Keys was born on the exact same day as Keith Richards, Dec. 18, 1943. So, of course, the Texas saxophone ace became a frequent conspirator in Richards’ well-chronicled chemical explorations. At some point in the 21st century, people started hating saxophone solos, but I still like a well-executed yet slightly ribald one. Like, for example, Keys’ solo on the 1971 Stones smash “Brown Sugar.” Or the sax on “Live With Me.” Or “Sweet Virginia.” A grizzled road hog who was touring by age 15 with artists such as Buddy Holly, Keys has played with everyone from George Harrison to Dr. John to Donovan to Sheryl Crow. And Jagger reportedly once ousted Keys from The Stones’ touring band for running up a crazy-big hotel tab by filling up his room’s bathtub with Dom Perignon. Thankfully, Keys was eventually brought back into the fold. Now that’s something to drink to.
Yes, I know, this list contains four keyboard players. But that representation is warranted because piano, organ and other keys play a vital role in making sure there’s enough “roll” in the Rolling Stones. And since The Stones reconvened for their 1989 comeback album Steel Wheels, Chuck Leavell has been the main guy doing that. (He’d previously laid down organ on tracks such as the 1983 dance-floor tinged gem “Undercover of the Night.”) Leavell was a member of the Allman Brothers during their “Brothers & Sisters” period and played the keyboards that featured very prominently on the Black Crowes LP Shake Your Money Maker and Eric Clapton’s Unplugged salvo. Leavell’s Southern gentleman piano graces one of the most endearing Stones tracks of the last 20 years: the 1994 Richards-sung ballad “The Worst.”
You know those lyrical piano bits that unfurl on the masterful 1981 ballad “Waiting on a Friend”? That’s Nicky Hopkins. Hopkins was also the man on the ol’ 88s on such piano-driven Stones tunes such as “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Loving Cup” and “She’s a Rainbow.” Rumor has it Hopkins was miffed The Stones never took him on as a full-fledged member, a chagrin he would not be the last musician to feel. Hopkins’ career includes time with the potent first incarnation of The Jeff Beck Group, which featured Rod Stewart on vocals and Ron Wood, who would go on to fame as a guitarist in the Faces and eventually The Stones, on bass. Hopkins can also be heard on classic tracks by John Lennon, The Kinks and Jefferson Airplane.
Mick Jagger is a soulful and skilled harmonica player. So it speaks volumes about Sugar Blue’s harp acumen that The Stones brought him in to blow on the 1978 songs “Some Girls” and, most notably, “Miss You.” (Jagger does handle the harmonica duties on those tracks live.) Blue’s work on “Miss You” is particularly effective, partially for the nocturnal, smoky phrasing and partially because a disco number is not something one typically hears harmonica on. Ronnie Wood has said The Stones discovered Blue while the bluesman was busking the streets of Paris. (Parts of the Some Girls album were cut at that city’s Pathé Marconi Studios.) Blue also appeared on the reggae-fied “Send It To Me,” from the Stones’ 1980 album Emotional Rescue.
It’s percussion-minded producer Jimmy Miller who played those cowbell plinks that open “Honky Tonk Women.” And believe it or not, that’s Miller and not Charlie Watts behind the drums on the studio versions of quintessential Stones sides such as “Tumbling Dice,” “Happy” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Miller produced all four of The Stones mighty tetralogy: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. He imbued those records—and the LP that followed them, 1973’s Goats Head Soup—with lusty, immediate sonics. Prior to hooking up with The Rolling Stones, Miller made his name by producing the Spencer Davis Group, and he’d go on to do the same for Blind Faith and even Motorhead.
If ever a rock band presented saxophone haters with a difficult prejudice, it’s The Stones. Not only is Bobby Keys’ work consistently thrilling and tasteful, but jazz luminary Sonny Rollins appears on three Tattoo You tracks, albeit uncredited. Rollins’ vaporous solo and outro on “Waiting on a Friend,” as well as the punchy blurts on “Slave” and “Neighbors” gave the tunes an extra kick of New York cool.
Square-jawed pianist Ian Stewart connected with Rolling Stones founder/guitarist Brian Jones even before Mick or Keith did. Stewart was a scintillating boogie-woogie player, but that didn’t prevent Stones manager and turtleneck enthusiast Andrew Loog Oldham from ousting him from being a full-fledged member of the group because he wasn’t hot enough and Oldham felt a six-member band wasn’t commercially viable. When many musicians would have gotten huffy and told the Stones where they could stick it, Stewart became the quintet’s road manager and kept on providing rollicking piano lines. “Honky Tonk Women,” “Star Star,” “Brown Sugar,” “Let It Bleed” and “Dead Flowers” are just a handful of the Stones cuts on which Stewart’s work shines. Although many rock fans are aware Stewart also lent Led Zeppelin his skill on the ivories for the appropriately titled 1971 tune “Boogie with Stu,” his key pounding also propels one of Zep’s most scorching and famous cuts, “Rock and Roll.”