The genius of Brian Jones propelled the early Rolling Stones into the higher echelons of the pop charts all over the world. He was a complete one off and there was much to admire about him. Jones was one of the ultimate sixties pop stars with a creative cutting edge, compounded with an out-there fashion sense, who remains a style icon to this day. It seems strange to think that he has almost been air-brushed out of the Rolling Stones history.
Juggling his duties as a musician with heavy drink and drug use, he died in suspicious circumstances one summer’s night at his rock star mansion in Sussex, forty five years ago this week. He was twenty seven.
Brian was not exactly a child prodigy but he showed early signs that he was certainly gifted. During the mid to late 1950’s, the skiffle craze was sweeping across Great Britain and the teenagers were going wild. Brian Lewis Hopkins Jones was besotted. He could play the piano and the clarinet proficiently and it would not long before he joined his first skiffle group. He bought a saxophone and formed a band, Thunder Odin’s Big Secret, and began playing venues and parties across London. He admired Blues musician Alexis Korner and met him after a gig in Cheltenham, where they exchanged phone numbers. He was introduced to the music of Elmore James by Korner, it was Brian’s most important musical discovery and he was so enamoured by Elmore’s work, that he went under the name of Elmore Lewis and began his career as a full time musician.
In 1962 he formed the Stones, who built up a reputation as a tight live act almost immediately.
Brian was the leader and responsible for the music they played, how they looked and where the band was going. He would soon suffer his first blow, losing control of the group to another young upstart.
Andrew Oldham was a hustler on the London music scene who became a publicist for various music acts and for producer Joe Meek. Among his projects were stints publicising Bob Dylan on his first UK visit and The Beatles for Brian Epstein in early 1963. In April of that year, a journalist friend recommended that he see a young R&B band called The Rolling Stones. Oldham saw potential in the group going head to head with The Beatles. He was still a teenager when he took over management of the band, side-lining Jones.
He signed the band to Decca Records. By 1967 they had sold over a million more records than The Beatles and they were expected to gross $20 million that year. In 1969 Jones was one of the highest paid musicians in pop music – by the time of his death he was broke.
Brian, a heavy drinker from 1964, was on a slippery slope. Heavy drug abuse made him unpredictable and aggressive and he became estranged from the band he had formed.
He had bought his pop star mansion in the English countryside and was supposedly living the dream. Cotchford Farm was a beautiful 16th century farmhouse in Sussex, which he had purchased for £35,000. His country idyll was the former home of Winnie the Pooh creator AA Milne. He settled in and began to renovate the property.
With a crippling tax bill to deal with, The Stones needed to tour again and plans were drawn up to go out on the road taking in America. Jones was not physically or mentally capable of sustaining a heavy work schedule or tour and it was decided that he was a liability. His time as a member of one of the most success acts of the 1960s was coming to an end.
He was unceremoniously kicked out of The Rolling Stones in June 1969 as his drug addled behaviour worsened, jeopardising the band’s promotional plans for their new album Beggars Banquet. The announcement that Jones had left the stones came in May of 1969.
He stated “I no longer see eye to eye with the others. The Stones music is not to my taste anymore.”
Brian was no longer a Rolling Stone. It was rumoured that he was forming a super group with his friend John Lennon and working with Jimi Hendrix.
He was not in the best of health, his weight had ballooned and his good looks were now faded and tired but he still liked to party and entertain. Brian held a small gathering one summer’s night, inviting friends, acquaintances and the builders who were renovating his property.
Brian’s death happened on 2 July 1969. His demise is complicated and of course shrouded in inconsistencies and lies. It’s doubtful that we will ever get to know the true story of his death. What we do know is that the story of his tragic end has uncovered many falsehoods and lies.
One person who wanted to get to the truth was a budding young writer called Terry Rawlings.
Terry’s love of music began in the seventies when he was employed as a post boy at The Stones’ record label Decca. He heard rumours about the death of Brian and decided to uncover the mystery in a book called Who Killed Christopher Robin. Jones’ death, in his swimming pool, has been the subject of no small amount of speculation and conspiracy, with the official verdict of misadventure undermined by various claims of murder, robbery and cover up. The mystery is complicated but Terry has come the nearest to solving one of the great rock and roll deaths.
Listen here. You can hear the documentary Play With Fire: The Death of Brian Jones this Thursday at 7pm on Absolute Radio 60’s.