Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: 'Life'


I think the first record I bought was Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally." Fantastic record, even to this day. Good records just get better with age. But the one that really turned me on, like an explosion one night, listening to Radio Luxembourg on my little radio when I was supposed to be in bed and asleep, was "Heartbreak Hotel." That was the stunner. I'd never heard it before, or anything like it. I'd never heard of Elvis before. It was almost as if I'd been waiting for it to happen. When I woke up the next day I was a different guy. Suddenly I was getting overwhelmed: Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Fats. Radio Luxembourg was notoriously difficult to keep on station. I had a little aerial and walked round the room, holding the radio up to my ear and twisting the aerial. Trying to keep it down because I'd wake Mum and Dad up. If I could get the signal right, I could take the radio under the blankets on the bed and keep the aerial outside and twist it there. I'm supposed to be asleep; I'm supposed to be going to school in the morning. Loads of ads for James Walker, the jewelers "in every high street," and the Irish sweepstakes, with which Radio Lux had some deal. The signal was perfect for the ads, "and now we have Fats Domino, ‘Blueberry Hill,'" and shit, then it would fade.

Then, "Since my baby left me" -- it was just the sound. It was the last trigger. That was the first rock and roll I heard. It was a totally different way of delivering a song, a totally different sound, stripped down, burnt, no bullshit, no violins and ladies' choruses and schmaltz, totally different. It was bare, right to the roots that you had a feeling were there but hadn't yet heard. I've got to take my hat off to Elvis for that. The silence is your canvas, that's your frame, that's what you work on; don't try and deafen it out. That's what "Heartbreak Hotel" did to me. It was the first time I'd heard something so stark. Then I had to go back to what this cat had done before. Luckily I caught his name. The Radio Luxembourg signal came back in. "That was Elvis Presley, with ‘Heartbreak Hotel.'" Shit!

Around 1959, when I was fifteen, Doris bought me my first guitar. I was already playing, when I could get one, but you can only tinker when you haven't got one of your own. It was a Rosetti. And it was about ten quid. Doris didn't have the credit to buy it on hire purchase, so she got someone else to do it, and he defaulted on the payment -- big kerfuffle. It was a huge amount of money for her and Bert. But Gus must have had something to do with it too. It was a gut-string job. I started where every good guitar player should start -- down there on acoustic, on gut strings. You can get to wire later on. Anyway, I couldn't afford an electric. But I found just playing that Spanish, an old workman, and starting from there, it gave me something to build on. And then you got to steel strings and then finally, wow! Electricity! I mean, probably if I had been born a few years later, I would have leapt on the electric guitar. But if you want to get to the top, you've got to start at the bottom, same with anything. Same with running a whorehouse. I would just play every spare moment I got. People describe me then as being oblivious to my surroundings -- I'd sit in a corner of a room when a party was going on or a family gathering, and be playing. Some indication of my love of my new instrument is Aunt Marje telling me that when Doris went to hospital and I stayed with Gus for a while, I was never parted from my guitar. I took it everywhere and I went to sleep with my arm laid across it.

I have my sketchbook and notebook of that year. The date is more or less 1959, the crucial year when I was, mostly, fifteen years old. It's a neat, obsessive piece of work in blue Biro. The pages are divided by columns and headings, and page two (after a crucial page about Boy Scouting, of which more later) is called "Record List. 45 rpm." The first entry: "Title: Peggy Sue Got Married, Artiste(s): Buddy Holly." Underneath that, in a less neat scrawl, are the encircled names of girls. Mary (crossed out) Jenny (ticked) Janet, Marilyn, Veronica. And so on. "Long Players" are The Buddy Holly Story, A Date with Elvis, Wilde about Marty (Marty Wilde, of course, for those who don't know), The "Chirping" Crickets. The lists include the usuals -- Ricky Nelson, Eddie Cochran, Everly Brothers, Cliff Richard ("Travellin' Light")  -- but also Johnny Restivo ("The Shape I'm In"), which was number three on one of my lists, "The Fickle Chicken" by the Atmospheres, "Always" by Sammy Turner -- forgotten jewels. These were the record lists of the Awakening -- the birth of rock and roll on UK shores. Elvis dominated the landscape at this point. He had a section in the notebook all to himself. The very first album I bought. "Mystery Train," "Money Honey," "Blue Suede Shoes," "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone." The crème de la crème of his Sun stuff. I slowly acquired a few more, but that was my baby. As impressed as I was with Elvis, I was even more impressed by Scotty Moore and the band. It was the same with Ricky Nelson. I never bought a Ricky Nelson record, I bought a James Burton record. It was the bands behind them that impressed me just as much as the front men. Little Richard's band, which was basically the same as Fats Domino's band, was actually Dave Bartholomew's band. I knew all this. I was just impressed by ensemble playing. It was how guys interacted with one another, natural exuberance and seemingly effortless delivery. There was a beautiful flippancy, it seemed to me. And of course that goes even more for Chuck Berry's band. But from the start it wasn't just the singer. What had to impress me behind the singer would be the band.

Excerpted from Life by Keith Richards. Copyright 2010 by Keith Richards. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown and Company.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Keith Richards