It’s a red-letter day for black marks on the rock calendar. This day in 1969, Brian Jones , founder of the Rolling Stones, died at age 27, drowning in his pool. That came only weeks after the band had fired him after years of volatile, unpredictable behavior.
Jones was, no matter what else, a musical talent to be reckoned with. His dad was a piano teacher on the side and his mom led the church choir; they exposed Brian to lots of classical music as a child. He soon found a preference for old American blues music however, and his parents indulged him, buying him a saxophone and then a guitar as a young teen. He mastered both, and later keyboards and other instruments as well. He was by all accounts smart, but always in trouble at school. By age 16 he was playing in various jazz or blues clubs around London; in 1962 he put an ad in a music paper looking to form a band. That brought out, among others, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, as well as Charlie Watts. Jones assembled the band, and then picked the name, Rolling Stones, on a whim when an interviewer asked about it.
Jones preferred doing blues covers and very bluesy rock originals, which the rest of the band soon began to tire of, as did the manager Andrew Loog Oldham, with whom Jones never got along well with. Through the band’s early days, Jones irritated the others, getting paid 5 pounds (about $140 now) a week more than Jagger and Richards by the record company, supposedly for helping manage the group. He went through a string of girlfriends, that was prolific even by rock star standards, had several children and was often sued for paternity. One of his many flings left him for Keith in 1967, adding to the hostilities. And he got as bored with music as with any girl. On the one hand, he wanted the band to remain rooted in the blues; on the other hand he had grown bored with playing guitar by all accounts a few years in. Bill Wyman remembered “there were at least two sides to Brian’s personality. One Brian was introverted, shy, sensitive, deep-thinking. The other was a preening peacock…”
Although he was best known for his guitar work, often playing what they termed “weaving” guitars with Richards (in which both would rather alternate lead bits and rhythm parts), and also being a slide guitar talent, as we hear on “Little Red Rooster”, he experimented with all sorts of other instruments, particularly paying attention to the Beatles expanded sounds in ’66-67. He got a sitar (played on “Paint it Black” among other songs), and a mellotron (“She’s a Rainbow”), not to mention dulcimers and autoharps. He even joined Jimi Hendrix, playing percussion on “All Along the Watch Tower.”
He also experimented with drugs and booze, and stretching it to the limits. One wonders how bad one’s addiction had to be in the 1960s for Keith Richards to be fed up with it! By early 1969, the Stones were planning an American tour, and Jones drug arrests made it difficult to get him a work visa. Worse, he’d often not show up for recording sessions, and some present called him “literally incapable of playing music” anymore. He drove his motorbike through a store window, further debilitating him. On June 8, 1969, the band fired him although they gave him the grace of being able to publicly say he quit because “I no longer see eye to eye with the others over the discs we’re cutting.”
Not long after, his girlfriend found him floating in his pool. By the time medics arrived, he was dead. The coroner put it down as “death by misadventure” but noted both his heart and liver were in terrible shape from years of abuse. He was one of the first members of the grisly, so-called “27 Club”, musicians dying of unusual circumstances at age 27. Through the years various conspiracy theories have emerged suggesting he was killed in a fight over money, but the Sussex police investigated in 2010 and found no reason to re-open the case.
Although only Wyman and Watts attended his funeral from the Stones, they did play a show at Hyde Park just two days after his death, and released a number of white butterflies in his memory, as well as playing “I’m Yours and I’m Hers,” a Johnny Winter song he loved.
As an ironic final twist to the story, the Doors Jim Morrison wrote a poem in his honor, entitled “Ode to LA, while thinking of Brian Jones, deceased.” Two years later to the day, Morrison himself joined the “27 Club”, being found dead in his Paris bathtub.