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Ron Wood: Rolling Stones Are Born, Not Made

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Beck originally asked Woody to join his solo group as second guitarist; when the guy scheduled to play bass didn't make the first rehearsal, Ronnie switched to bass, an instrument he'd never played professionally. He remained throughout that band's stormy and successful tenure one of the few constants in a lineup that included, at one time or another, singer Rod Stewart, drummer Mick Waller and pianist Nicky Hopkins. Being a bassist, Woody has always maintained, taught him a lot about playing guitar.

Beck's group folded in mid-1969; earlier that year, Steve Marriott had decided to leave the Small Faces. The other three members of that Mod institution decided to keep going on their own, and invited Woody to join as the guitarist. Ronnie brought Stewart along.

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The Faces were another band that never quite reached their potential. They were enormously popular onstage, where their drunken sloppiness gave them an unbeatable rock & roll feel, but they could never quite match that spirit in the recording studio. But it was with them that Woody finally developed a musical identity of his own, playing stinging slide guitar lines off the band's R&B rhythms, and accompanying Stewart in diverse fashion on material from his solo albums, on which Wood also played a prominent role. Onstage, he was a master of clowning cool, a Marlboro permanently jammed in his jaw, falling against the amps, duckwalking around the stage, mugging with Stewart and bassist Ronnie Lane at the harmony mike. It was pure fun, the opposite of the determined reserve of British guitar heroes like Clapton and Beck – Chuck Berry on nitrous oxide. Not surprisingly, the Faces became the favorite band of lots of musicians, including the Stones and the Who.

By 1972, Woody had had enough success to buy an 18th-century, five-story brick house, "as near London as you can get to being a mansion." It was the house in which the actor John Mills had raised his family, including his daughter Hayley, a mid-Sixties starlet. "The Wick," as it is called, overlooks the Thames (Pete Townshend's place is two miles downriver), and it is so much the pop-star dreamhouse that it played a crucial role in Ron Wood's rise to the Rolling Stones.

In late 1972, Eric Clapton hadn't performed in nearly two years, while suffering from a heroin habit. At the request of Lord Harlech, the father of Clapton's girlfriend, Pete Townshend began planning a Clapton comeback concert. One of the first people he called on to help was Ron Wood.

"Pete Townshend initiated the whole thing. I said, 'Well we can do the whole thing at my house if you want.' The studio wasn't finished, but we could use the dining room downstairs. And he loved the idea because he loved the house. And before we knew it, all the gear was coming in, and then the Crickets – Jerry Allison, Sonny Curtis – came over with Rick Grech. The Crickets left, Rick stayed." In January 1973, when the Clapton concert went off at the Rainbow in London, Wood was onstage, playing slide guitar as well as bass. In the long run, it may have done as much for Ronnie's career as Clapton's – playing on the same stage with two of the acknowledged masters of rock guitar lent him not only increased visibility but instant public credibility.

The next March, his eight-track studio completed, he started work on his first solo album. He brought together drummer Andy Newmark and bassist Willie Weeks, along with Faces keyboard man Ian McLagan, then called a few friends. Stewart, George Harrison, Mick Taylor, Jagger and Paul McCartney all sat in.

So did Keith Richard, much to his own amazement. "I heard that he was starting work on his first album. And he was playing with Andy Newmark and Willie Weeks, so it sounded interesting. Then I got an invitation to come down and check it out, and if I wanted, to play on one track. I got there late that night . . . and I didn't get out of the house for three months." Richard took over the Wick's guest house, formerly occupied by Lane.

Although it took a while to sink in, what Richard had found was a perfectly sympathetic guitar companion; Richard and Mick Taylor played in counterpoint, but with Wood, it's almost always in tandem. When Taylor announced at the end of '74 that he was leaving the group, Ronnie was the inevitable replacement. The Stones auditioned a number of others, spoke to a few better-known names (Eric Clapton, for one) but in the end, it came down to a simple proposition. "Either you're joining," Mick Jagger told Wood, "or we aren't doing the tour."

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