Remember When: Keith Richards Started The X-Pensive Winos

Guitarist Keith Richards will forever be associated with The Rolling Stones. No matter what else he does, he will always be known as the guitar player from the greatest rock band in the world. In 1986, Dirty Work was the first Rolling Stones album released by CBS Records. The relationship between Richards and Mick Jagger was at an all-time low. Jagger decided not to tour with the band to promote the album and instead went on a solo tour. The Rolling Stones nearly broke up.

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During this time, Richards looked to make music of his own. He formed a band with co-songwriter and co-producer Steve Jordan, who played with Richards and others in two 1986 concerts celebrating Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday that were the basis for the movie documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. Richards gathered guitarist Waddy Wachtel, saxophonist Bobby Keys, bassist Charley Drayton, and keyboardist Ivan Neville and went into the recording studio. The X-Pensive Winos were born.

World War III

In the late ’80s, their relationship had deteriorated to the point where Richards and Jagger were working on their own projects. Richards referred to this timeframe as “World War III.” In Richards’ 2010 memoir Life, Jordan remembered, “Keith and I were very close during those times when we were writing before we put together a band when there was just the two of us. We went into a studio called Studio 900, which was right around the corner from where I lived and up the street from where he lived in New York. And we would go in there and hunker down.

“The first time we went in there, we played 12 hours straight,” he continued. “Keith didn’t even go out and take a piss! It was unbelievable. It was just sheer love of music that bound us. But it was clearly liberating for him. He had so many ideas he wanted to get out. And certainly, he was upset, or, at least when it came to writing, wearing his heart on his sleeve.”

The Band’s Name

Richards was invigorated by the new material. He wrote in Life, “I noticed a bottle of Château Lafite introduced as light refreshment in the studio. Well, nothing was too good for this amazing band of brothers. Steve asked me who I wanted to play with, and first up, on guitar I said Waddy Wachtel. And Steve said, ‘You took the words, brother.’ I had known Waddy since the ’70s, and I’d always wanted to play with him, one of the most tasteful, simpatico players I know. And he’s completely musical. Understanding of it, empathetic, nothing ever needing to be explained. He’s also got the most uncanny ultrasonic ear, still tuned high after years of bandstands. He was playing with Linda Ronstadt, and he was playing with Stevie Nicks—chick bands—but I knew my man wanted to rock. So I called him and said simply, ‘I’m putting a band together, and you’re in it.’ Steve agreed that Charley Drayton should be the bass player, and I think it was just a general consensus that Ivan Neville, from Aaron Neville’s family from New Orleans, should be the piano player. There was no audition process whatsoever.”

“It Brought Me Back to Life”

“The Winos were put together very slyly. Almost everybody in that band can play anything,” Richards recalled. “They can switch instruments; they can virtually all sing. Steve can sing. Ivan’s a fantastic singer. This core band, from the first few bars we ever played, took off like a rocket. I’ve always been incredibly lucky with the guys I’ve played with. And there’s no way you can stand in front of the Winos without getting off. It’s a surefire high. It was so hot you could hardly believe it. It brought me back to life. I felt as if I’d just gotten out of jail. As engineer we had Don Smith, who Steve had picked out. He had cut his teeth at Stax in Memphis and worked with Don Nix, who wrote ‘Going Down.’ He also worked with Johnnie Taylor, one of my earliest heroes. He’d hung out in the juke joints of Memphis with Furry Lewis. He loved his music.”

Talk Is Cheap

In 1978, Richards released a solo single of “Run Rudolph Run,” backed with “The Harder They Come.” It failed to chart. The album The X-Pensive Winos recorded was referred to in the press as a Keith Richards solo album, but Talk Is Cheap was very much a band effort. Richards wrote, “I’d never really written with anybody on a long-term basis except Mick, and I wasn’t really writing much with Mick anymore. We were writing our own songs. And I didn’t realize until I worked with Steve Jordan how much I’d missed that. And how important it was to collaborate. When the band was assembled in the studio, I often composed the songs there, just standing up and voweling, hollering, whatever it took, a process that was unfamiliar to Waddy at first.”

Said Wachtel, “It was very funny. Keith’s concept of writing was this. ‘Set up some mikes. Huh? OK.’ He goes, ‘OK, let’s go sing it.’ ‘Go sing what?’ And he goes, ‘Go sing it!’ ‘What are you talking about? Go sing what?’ ‘We don’t have anything.’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, right, let’s go make something up.’ And this is it. This is the routine. So Steve and I are standing up there with him, and every so often, he’d go, ‘What the f–k … that feels good,’ trying to come up with lines. Throw everything at the wall, see if it sticks. And that was basically the routine. It was amazing. And we got some lines out of it, too.”

The Sopranos

The band performed at the Hollywood Palladium, and a version of “Make No Mistake” was recorded and later featured in the TV series The Sopranos and included on the 2001 soundtrack album The Sopranos: Peppers & Eggs: Music from the HBO Original Series. Richards sums it up like this, “We had the time of our lives touring with the Winos. We had standing ovations at almost every show, we did small theaters, sellouts, we broke even. The caliber of musicianship across the stage was astonishing. Fabulous playing every night, the music flowing like crazy. We were flying. It was really magic. In the end, neither Mick nor I sold a lot of records from our solo albums because they want the Rolling bleeding Stones, right?

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Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for LOVE ROCKS NYC/God’s Love We Deliver

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