Rock & Roll Conspiracies: Elvis, Keith Richards and More

Getting to the bottom of the Stones' guitarist's real name

Keith Richards Rolling Stone Saturday Night Live
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
Keith Richards performing on Saturday Night Live in New York, New York circa 1979.
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I was sitting in the office, feet up on my desk, when I noticed a letter from Kit Rachlis, a friend who's music editor of the Boston Phoenix. Nothing much new; we still agreed and disagreed about half the time. But the last paragraph grabbed my attention.

"An Elvis story you'll appreciate," it said. "It's secondhand, told to me by a reporter in the office who heard it from someone who called into a radio talk show. It seems that Jesse Presley [Elvis' twin brother] didn't die at birth. They've been keeping him under wraps all these years, and it was Jesse, not Elvis, who died. They decided to announce that it was Elvis' death (they being the Colonel, of course) so that in five years they could bring Elvis back and have the biggest comeback of all time — except for the resurrection of Jesus, of course, which is exactly the whole point."

It was certainly plausible. Not necessarily likely, but . . . you couldn't rule it out. Jesse had always been fascinating; a dead twin brother seemed a plot out of Mark Twain or Charles Dickens. Indeed, once Chet Flippo and I considered writing it up as a novel, until Greil Marcus told me that Nik Cohn had already written it: King Death. But Jesse alive . . . after the death of McCartney, the Tammi Terrell rumors, the Dylan cycle crackup hints, why not?

But thinking that way was only a diversion. I was on the track of another conspiracy altogether; it would be fatal to let it slip from my grasp right now. It is not every day that Rolling Stone stumbles upon a plot involving the Rolling Stones.

It happened while writing the Ron Wood feature for the last issue. Around the same time, Keith Richards was available to the press for the first time in years; suddenly, he was the most quoted figure since Bert Lance. No one knew exactly why Richards, a man in legal difficulty, would choose to expose himself to scrutiny. But he was loquacious and friendly, and you could hardly complain.

In Gig magazine's October issue, I stumbled on this quote: "Gig: What's your exact name? We might as well get that straight. On some albums, you're Keith Richard and on others, you're Keith Richards. . .  Keith: That's thanks to Andrew Oldham [the Stones' first manager]. He was a great one for names. He decided to knock the 's' off my name for some reason. So, for years and years, everything was printed with no 's' until I started to wield some influence over the printer [laughs] and sometimes I'd get it on there."

So, typing up the manuscript, I made sure to say Keith Richards. Paul Scanlon told me I was wrong; so did Barbara Downey, our copy chief, and Sarah Lazin, who runs the research department. I held my ground, cited Gig and the cover of Exile on Main Street (where Richard is called Richards, but also half the world thinks it's Exiles, so there). The music staff laughed at me. I didn't care: those were his words I'd read. No one else had asked.

Desperate, I called Rolling Stones Records president Earl McGrath and asked him. "Richard," he said. "What does it say on the new album jacket? [As usual, in a situation like this, the new record was not in the office.] Richard," he repeated. I was crushed; I have known McGrath for many years and he has never lied.

I called Jean-Charles Costa, Gig's editor, and chided him for printing fabrications. He called Steve Weitzman, who had done the interview. Weitzman called Andrew Oldham. Oldham verified the quote. He said he'd changed the name to try to cash in on Cliff Richard's then current success. (Just as Alice Cooper changed his name from Vincent Furnier to try to cash in on Al Kooper, I suppose.) Now, I was really confused. What was going on here?

I went to our record library to sort out the evidence. All the Stones albums weren't there, but that's not the mystery. Of the ones that were, I found this: "Richard" on Black and Blue, Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) and Love You Live. "Richards" on Got Live if You Want It, 12X5, Now! and Between the Buttons, but also as recently as Exile and It's Only Rock 'n' Roll. That was confusing enough, but then I happened to glance at Ron Wood's two solo records. On I've Got My Own Album to Do, he is Keith Richard; on the second album, Now Look, he is Keith Richards. Maybe I'll call Wood, I thought. But then it struck me; on the first album: Ron Wood. On Now Look: Ronnie Wood. On Black and Blue, he is both.

That settled it. There were only two possibilities left. One was that Keith is as confused as we are. Or that he doesn't know anymore. I preferred the second. My conclusion is that the absence of pattern is the pattern. It's all deliberate. Whatever his name, he's often been described as the ultimate rock star; as we all know, rock stars hate the press. And as the ultimate act of vengeance, Keith whoever-the-hell-he-is has devised this plot, this constant erratic shifting of his last name, to drive us all mad.

There's nothing to be done about it. You can't prove it, and confronting him with the evidence, as Weitzman did, only plays into his hand, or hands, creating more confusion. I'm only sorry that he dragged a nice fellow like Ron (or Ronnie) Wood (or Woody) into the plot along with him.

This is a story from the November 17, 1977 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 252: November 17, 1977