Not long ago, I read Life, by Keith Richards. Sure, he’s known around the world as the lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones, but I’d add him to the pantheon of business-management gurus. Surprised? Don’t be. Richards’s life is filled with examples of the kind of behavior that people and organizations should do to be successful. No, I don’t mean the heroin. I mean re-invention.
Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones burst onto the British music scene in the early 1960s by being exceptionally good imitators of American rhythm and blues, rock’s leading edge at the time. The band’s first top-ten hit in the UK was a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”
The Stones had great success with this formula and would be a proud but obscure footnote in music history were it not for Richards’s first self re-invention: becoming a writer of original songs with Mick Jagger.
Richards speaks movingly of his transformation into a songwriter. It’s a description that wouldn’t be out of place in an MBA class on entrepreneurship or a speech by Steve Jobs:
“I had never thought about songwriting. He [Andrew Oldham, an early producer/manager for the Stones] made me learn the craft, and at the same time I realized, yes, I am good at it. And slowly this whole other world opens up, because now you’re not just a player, or trying to play like somebody else. It isn’t just other people’s expression. I can start to express myself, I can write my own music. It’s almost like a bolt of lightning.”
But this was just one of the first of many self-reinventions Richards would have in his career. I’ll touch on two briefly:
By the late sixties, the Stones have a string of international hits, but Richards feels stagnant. Not content with his sound, Richards yanks a string from his guitar and discovers a “whole new universe under your fingers.” The five-string open tuning was “out of the realms of normal music” but it became the sound behind hits like “Brown Sugar,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Happy,” and “All Down the Line.”
Re-invention for Richards came again, in the late 1980s. Some 25 years after the Rolling Stones began, Richards forms a new band, the X-Pensive Winos. His new role? Lead singer. After years singing backup, he’s now out in front, and with a great group of musicians around him, the band becomes a huge success. If you doubt Richards’s vocal skill, check out “Take it so Hard.”
So what are the lessons from Keith Richards? First, don’t settle. Keep innovating, keep taking risks. Second, have a collaborator, someone to challenge and inspire you. It could be in an unexpected place. Richards’s grandfather was a source of inspiration in his early life; Mick Jagger, Gram Parsons and Ry Cooder played the role at later times. And third, training and learning never stop. Richards took singing lessons to improve as a lead vocalist in his new band. Good lessons for music, for business and for life.