Ron Wood has, in his long and varied musical career, established himself as a mainstay of rock ‘n’ roll music as its de facto court jester. He has played bass, guitar, and slide guitar with a veritable who’s who of rock, as a band member, session musician, and guest. His steady gig since 1975 has been as guitarist with the Rolling Stones.
Wood was born in London in 1947, the youngest of three brothers. His father, Arthur, was a harmonica player who led a big band, but he also had a day job as a tugboat skipper. His mother, Lizzie, had worked in a factory, as many women did during wartime. She quit working to become a housewife when her first child was born in 1937.
All the Wood boys were artistically and musically inclined. Art (born 1937) and Ted (1939-2003) enjoyed art and music, and their youngest brother joined them in whatever they happened to be doing. “If they were painting, I would paint, and if they played music, I would copy them and skip from instrument to instrument,” said Wood in a 2003 interview with the London Independent. “We had everything from Chinese woodblocks to old drum kits, tea-chest bass, banjos, guitars, trumpets, saxophone, harmonica, Jew’s harp. Ted would let me have a little bash around on his drums.”
Ronnie Wood made his stage debut in Ted Wood’s Original London Skiffle Group in 1957. In a 2003 obituary for his brother Ted in the Independent, he said, “We went on at the interval between two Tommy Steele films. I was about nine and I played the washboard.... I even had stage butterflies. Ted had to push me on but then I wouldn’t get off.” Like his older brothers, Wood attended the Ealing School of Art. Other well-known performers who studied at the school included Pete Townshend and David Bowie.
One of the first bands that Wood performed with was The Birds. He joined the pioneering rock band as guitarist in 1964. The band was on the forefront of British rock ‘n’ roll, but their popularity was obscured by a confusion with names. There were two other rock bands enjoying popularity at this same time with similar names: The Yardbirds and the American group the Byrds. They had already changed their name to avoid confusion with a band called the Thunderbirds. The label to which they had signed was busier promoting other groups, and the band broke up in 1967 after marginal success.
Wood joined the band Creation in 1968. This short-lived mod group released several notable singles but, as Greg Shaw noted in an article reprinted in the book The Sound and the Fury: A Rock’s Backpages Reader – 40 Years of Classic Rock Journalism, “None of them ... can be considered anything more than genre records.”
After leaving the Creation, Wood contacted guitarist Jeff Beck about forming a new band. The Jeff Beck Group was formed with the addition of an unknown vocalist named Rod Stewart. Wood and Stewart would become friends as well as colleagues. The band was updating blues in a vein that made the sound a predecessor to what would be known as heavy metal. It was while performing with the group that Stewart and Wood began drinking to mask their performance anxieties. Stewart recalled that one of them would carry a bag containing a flask of brandy or rum from which they would nip.
The Jeff Beck Group made two albums - one each in 1968 and 1969. These are still considered classic recordings, but the group was plagued by infighting with Beck. The situation became worse while the group was on tour in the United States. “The tour was supposed to culminate in an appearance at Woodstock,” wrote Tom Hibbert in the London Times, but “before the festival had got under way the guitarist’s temperament had finally proved too much for Wood and Stewart - and the group was no more.”
At the time in 1969 when Stewart and Wood were leaving Beck, Steve Marriott was leaving the Small Faces. The remaining members recruited Wood and Stewart, and later changed the group’s name to the Faces. In its new formation the band recorded First Step, but still under the Faces name. The album was released in the United States under the Small Faces name. The hit from the recording was the now-classic “Flying.”
“The Faces were a rough, sloppy rock & roll band, able to pound out a rocker like ‘Had Me a Real Good Time,’ a blues ballad like ‘Tell Everyone,’ or a folk number like ‘Richmond’ all in one album,” wrote Stephen Thomas Erlewine in All Music Guide. “Wood’s rhythm guitar had a warm, fat tone that was as influential and driving as Keith Richards’ style. Notorious for their hard-partying, boozy tours and ragged concerts, the Faces lived the rock & roll lifestyle to the extreme. . . . Their reckless, loose, and joyous spirit stayed alive in much of the best rock & roll of the subsequent decades.”
With Stewart, Wood co-wrote the Faces’ signature hit “Stay With Me,” which hit the charts in 1972. He also co-wrote songs that became classics in Stewart’s solo canon, “Gasoline Alley” and “Every Picture Tells a Story.” The ascendant star of Stewart caused confusion and problems as it continued to rise. Was the band The Faces or Rod Stewart and The Faces? Their follow up, 1973’s Ooh La La, also rose to the top of the charts, but featured other members as vocalists. After recording Ooh La La, Ronnie Lane left the group. While still officially tied to The Faces, Wood also performed as a guest of Eric Clapton at the legendary Rainbow concert in 1973 alongside Townshend, Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and others. During the period in which the band was attempting to regroup, Wood decided to record a solo project. I’ve Got My Own Album to Do was released in 1974.
The Faces slowly disintegrated, calling it quits in 1975. In 2004 the band’s music was rediscovered with the release of the four-disc set Five Guys Walk into A Bar. The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Hays Davis called it “the great Faces album that everyone figured was in there somewhere.”
The Rolling Stones were looking for a replacement for guitarist Mick Taylor at about the same time that members of The Faces were deliberating their future. Taylor quit in December of 1974, as The Rolling Stones were preparing to record. Numerous musicians were under consideration, among them Rory Gallagher, Wayne Perkins, and Harvey Mandel. Wood let it be known he was considering leaving The Faces, and the auditions ceased. Some of the studio work Wood and other auditioning guitarists contributed to the Rolling Stones during the group’s search to replace Taylor appeared on the Stones’ album Black and Blue, and the album would reach the number two spot on the British charts. Wood was officially declared a member of the supergroup in April of 1975.
After Wood joined the Stones, critics seemed to take note of his on and off-stage demeanor rather than his playing. Philip Norman, writing in the book Sympathy for the Devil: The Rolling Stones Story, called Wood an “ideally complete and recognizable rock star parody, a cartoon trailer, as it were, to his friend and confederate, Keith Richards. ... He would be a sidekick for Keith. He fitted.”
In 1977 Woods met Jo Howard. The two became intimately involved and had their first child in 1978 and their second in 1983. They were married in 1985. Woods and Howard both had children from previous marriages. Wood’s first official album in the Stones’ fold was 1977’s Love You Live, followed immediately by the now classic Some Girls. In 1979 Wood’s Gimme Some Neck was released. He and Richards formed the core of a one-off band called New Barbarians during a break from the Stones.
During the 1980s Wood and the Stones continued to record and tour, although some of the efforts met with mixed critical success. Emotional Rescue generated the single “She’s So Cold,” while the following year’s Tattoo You found success with “Waiting on a Friend” and what would be the ubiquitous Stones’ anthem, “Start Me Up.” As Richards and Mick Jagger continued to spar the band hit the doldrums, suffering from lackluster material, as evidenced by Undercover and Dirty Work. While waiting for Jagger and Richards to patch up their differences, Wood focused his energies on his own projects, including his ever-present interest in art.
With the release of Slide on This in 1992, Wood said he was feeling more at ease in the role of a solo artist, and characterized his previous works as mere side projects. “I never took them seriously. I never intended them to be contenders. They were just kind of exercises, a chance to show off,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Only now do I feel comfortable fronting my own band. I think I’ve got enough confidence, and I’ve done my apprenticeship.” Enlisting the help of erstwhile Stones’ backing singer Bernard Fowler enabled Wood to complete the project. Fowler served as co-producer as well as songwriter. Stalwarts Ian McLagan (ex-Faces) and Chuck Leavell, (ex-Allman Brothers Band) were among the contributing musicians, as were Charlie Watts, The Edge (U2), and Hothouse Flowers. Perhaps the standout single from the project was “Always Wanted More.” The Boston Globe called it “arguably the best solo album of his career.”
Wood clearly stated that he was not looking to venture forth as a solo act. The Stones “come first anyway,” he told Billboard. “I’m speaking for myself on this record, but with the Stones, it’s an institution. It’s also great fun, it always has been.” In the 1990s the caravan rolled on, as tours continued in support of Steel Wheels, Voodoo Lounge, and Bridges to Babylon.
Throughout his career, Wood continued to tinker with solo projects, including albums with his brothers and with Stewart. One such project was Not for Beginners, released in 2002. The recording and supporting concert, captured as Near East Man, included appearances from McLagan, Scotty Moore, DJ Fontana, and Bob Dylan, while two of Wood’s children appeared on stage in the video alongside Slash (ex-Guns and Roses). “Wood is an awkward frontman and bandleader. Only when his guitar does the talking for him,” wrote Michael Gallucci of the CD in All Music Guide, “does ‘Not for Beginners’ actually sound like a record made by a guy who makes tons of money playing in one of the world’s most legendary bands.”
By 2004 Wood had amassed an estimated 25 million pounds in his years with the Stones. “Wood’s 18 years in the Stones give him more seniority than Brian Jones and Mick Taylor combined,” noted Mike Boehm of the Los Angeles Times.
Wealth could not insulate Wood from personal and health issues. Substance abuse and addiction have continued to be problems for him. The first demon he fought was cocaine addiction, and at about the same time that he joined The Rolling Stones, he had a plastic septum surgically inserted in his nose. He also reportedly gave up cocaine around this time after being treated for addiction in New York. Drink has always been a companion. Columnist Sue Carroll sharply commented in the London Daily Mirror in March of 2004 that Wood was “56 and looks it. The rocker has downed eight pints of Guinness, two bottles of vodka, one of Sambuca and smoked 20 fags every day for years.” Wood spoke of this himself in an interview with the London Sunday Mirror: “And that was every day. I never blacked out though, I just used to be a steady drinker.” With an acknowledged family history of alcoholism, Wood has undergone treatment on various occasions. In July of 2000, it was reported that he was undergoing treatment in London, and two years later, he was in rehab in Arizona.
In 2004 the Sunday Mirror
reported an announcement by Wood that he had been diagnosed as being in the early stages of emphysema. “The doctors said that if I give up smoking now I can nip it in the bud - I still have powerful lungs,” Wood told the newspaper. “But they say if I smoke for another year, I could get emphysema and – boom - my lungs could collapse.” Yet Wood has continued to perform and record, both with and without the Rolling Stones