Ron Wood: Rolling Stones Are Born, Not Made

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Ron Wood grew up with rock & roll. Maybe it was the influence of his older brothers, who were both musicians, maybe just his nature, but he was banging away at whatever made noise from childhood. By the time he was twelve, Art was taking him to the Railway Hotel, where the Korner-Davies band he played with included not only the young Charlie Watts but also Nicky Hopkins (with whom Wood played a few years later in the Jeff Beck Group). "My brothers used to know people like Graham Bond, Jack Bruce, Charlie. Mick and Keith never had any direct contact with them, but most of the rock & roll veterans do remember my brothers."

In the genesis of British rock & roll, and particularly the creation of the Rolling Stones, Davies and Korner played a special role. They were the first to break away from the Dixieland (trad.) jazz of the purists and attempt American blues. It was in their bands that Jagger, Richard and Brian Jones first met Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman. Art Wood was the lead singer in Korner's Blues Incorporated; Ron's eldest brother, Ted, stayed with trad, playing until recent years in the Temperance Seven. Later, Art left and formed his own blues-oriented group, the Artwoods. By then, Ronnie was gigging on his own.

Photos: Rare and Intimate Pictures of the Rolling Stones

The band was called the Birds, and though Wood was only 16, they performed steadily on the same circuit with the London rock heavies who were three, four and five years their senior, probably because they played the same brand of pilled-up R&B.

"England's a funny place. It's small, it's a very small focus point. In those days, ten, fifteen years ago, you could probably meet everyone you wanted to meet in Wardour Street," Woody said. "And people you thought were doing amazingly well, they were going out for maybe $300 a night – I mean, bands like the Stones!

"My first group used to gauge our earnings on how much the Stones were getting." He dropped into his tone of mock amazement: "'You realize the Stones are gettin' $300 a night now!' 'Viv Prince earns sixty pounds a week!' The Birds used to work for about seventy-five pounds on the weekend, and forty pounds midweek. But we used to work every day, as well, all the tiny city halls all over England, and the ballrooms. The Birds and the Who used to be neck and neck around Shepherd's Bush, Acton, Ealing, the whole Mod scene.

"I got my first break playing harmonica at the Crawdaddy club with the Yardbirds. Keith Relf was ill, and my friends all pushed me forward. "Aw c'mon! Play!' Eric [Clapton] took me back afterward. We knew each other, kind of 'Ronnie, isn't it?' 'Right. Eric, isn't it?' I think he used to say, 'He's the guy with that big black shower of hair' – that's how he knew me, that guy with all the black hair. But he was good to me. He said, 'You really play harmonica well.' I said, 'Thank you very much. I also play guitar, you know.' After that we used to swap ideas and things."

Woody doesn't like to see it that way, but here again, he was in the younger brother role. Clapton, like Townshend and Richard, was by then already in art school; at sixteen, a couple of years can be a gulf. But rather than catching the top of the second wave of London musicians, Woody caught the tail of the first, which gave him a kind of social mobility in London's tight-knit pop community that others his age lacked. As much as anything else, it explains why he fits into the Stones so well. (It is not entirely coincidental that Mick Taylor also had a Birds-like band in those days, the Gods. If Woody fits better, it's mostly because he provides a kind of personality – outgoing and engaged – that suits the Stones better than Taylor's.)

The Birds probably could have been one of those classic Sixties influences like the Pretty Things; instead of making an LP, though, they got only as far as a single. The music they were playing was typical Mod-era stuff, Motown and other American R&B. In the end, though, it was another Yardbirds guitarist, Jeff Beck, who took Woody's career to its next level.

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