Bill Wyman remembers 'absolutely brilliant’ Rolling Stones bandmate Brian Jones, 50 years later

Lyndsey Parker
Editor-in-Chief, Music

Fifty years ago, on July 3, 1969, the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones became a member of the notorious “27 Club,” when he drowned in his swimming pool at Cotchford Farm in Hartfield, England. Mystery surrounds Jones’s death to this day — a longstanding conspiracy theory that he was murdered by handyman Frank Thorogood was even dramatized in the 2005 film Stoned and reinvestigated inconclusively by the Sussex Police in 2009. (The coroner's original verdict was “death by misadventure.”) But unfortunately, as the time goes by, younger music fans may not be fully aware of how crucial Brian Jones was to the Stones’ legacy. The Rolling Stones quite literally would have never existed without him.

“Everybody thinks that it was Mick and Keith's band, but it was Brian's band,” original Stones bassist Bill Wyman tells Yahoo Entertainment in an interview promoting his new documentary, The Quiet One, an exclusive clip from which can be seen above. “Whenever I've written books… I've always spent quite a bit of time explaining that Brian was the person that created the Rolling Stones in the beginning. He chose the music. He chose the name. He was the leader. He signed all the recording contracts, the management contracts, all kinds of things.”

Group portrait of the Rolling Stones circa 1964. L-R Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones (back), Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts. (Photo: Stanley Bielecki/ASP/Getty Images)

Jones’s importance to the Stones went beyond minding their business affairs. As Rolling Stone magazine stated in an Aug. 9, 1969 cover story about Jones’s passing, “If Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were the mind and body of the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones, standing most of the time in the shadows, was clearly the soul. … He was a Rolling Stone before he joined in 1962, and he led the life of a true Rolling Stone from 1963 to 1969.” That issue’s obituary, written by the great Greil Marcus, described Jones as “not just a guitarist for the Rolling Stones, but an embodiment of the music itself.”

Jones was in fact, the original public face of the band: the surliest and sauciest in press interviews, the most nattily dressed, the most lushly coiffed… and, most importantly, the most musically diverse. “I mean, he was brilliant musically in the early days. He could pick up any instrument and just play it, then just find something to add the record,” Wyman marvels. “He made so many records successful because of that. He would pick up an autoharp or a flute or a glockenspiel or marimbas, and he would be able to do all of that kind of stuff.” Among the other instruments Jones played were the harmonica, sitar, organ, recorder, cello, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, oboe, and, of course, guitar.

Bill Wyman and Brian Jones in 1965. (Photo: Michael Ward/Getty Images)

Jones formed and led the "Rollin' Stones" in 1962, initially as a blues/R&B covers band. But he slowly became estranged from his bandmates after Andrew Loog Oldham became their manager and encouraged singer Jagger to step out as the flamboyant frontman and write original songs with guitarist Richards. “It was the songwriting [that caused the power shift] … because Brian couldn't write songs,” Wyman says. “And of course, Mick was the frontman onstage. And so, it slowly evolved. It wasn't something that was forced upon anyone; it only evolved because of those reasons.”

Wyman’s The Quiet One, a virtual treasure trove of never-before-seen home movies and photographs chronicling the Rolling Stones’ history, features copious footage of Jones in his prime, as well Wyman’s reflections on Jones’s tragic end. “I was really sad when Brian started to fall to bits, basically,” Wyman — who, unlike Jones, didn’t take drugs — says in the film. “We'd be in L.A. and we'd go out to the clubs, and he'd be on LSD and he'd be getting out the limo and going, ‘Oh look, there's snakes all over the ground! … The ceiling's on fire!’ I just used to let him get on with it, but he would go off on those tangents a lot.”

The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones in 1965. (Photo: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns)

Wyman tells Yahoo Entertainment that while he and Jones were once dear friends, Jones’s drug use caused them to drift apart. “On the road [in the Stones’ early days], I would share [hotel rooms] with Brian,” he recalls. “So Brian and I always got along pretty well, and we used to go out clubbing when the others were staying in the hotel. We would go out clubbing and sometimes jam with local musicians and, you know, pick up girls. So yeah, we were pretty close. … [but] I was never aware of him ever taking heavy drugs. It was always painkillers with alcohol and sleepers. He used to take sleepers and then take alcohol and stay awake on it, so he would be stoned and all that kind of stuff. So, that was about '67 when I kind of lost the closeness with him, I suppose.”

1967 was the troubled, beginning-of-the-end year when Jones was arrested twice for drug possession, and also the year that his longtime girlfriend Anita Pallenberg left him for Richards after Jones was abusive during a vacation in Morocco. Jones’s increasingly erratic behavior and substance abuse over the next two years eventually led to him being ousted from the Stones during the making of their 10th album, Let It Bleed; by that point, Jagger and Richards were very much in control, and it was very much their band. “It really had nothing to do with me, it was down to them,” the neutral and diplomatic Wyman says of Jones’s firing. “It was down to what was going on with Keith, Brian, and Andrew. Clearly, [drummer] Charlie [Watts] and I were just the rhythm section; we were there to do our job and lay the foundation for everyone else, and that's what we did. We did it very efficiently and conscientiously. We were always on time, we were always well-behaved, we were always straight, and so the basics went down.”

Brian Jones and Bill Wyman in 1964. (Photo: Terry O'Neill/Iconic Images/Getty Images)

Although Jones was in fact fired from the Stones in June ‘69, his former bandmates allowed him to announce his departure in his own way. Jones’s official statement read: “I no longer see eye-to-eye with the others over the discs we are cutting. … I want to play my kind of music, which is no longer the Stones music. The music Mick and Keith have been writing has progressed at a tangent, as far as my own taste is concerned.” Sadly, the world never got to find out what sort of music Jones would have created post-Stones. Less than a month after his exit from the band, he was dead.

It was Watts who told Wyman the shocking news. “Charlie phoned me up,” Wyman says plainly in The Quiet One. He just said, ‘Brian died.’ I couldn't believe it, you know. … When he went, it really sort of got me bad. Somebody a bit special.”

Just two days after Jones’s death, the Rolling Stones proceeded with their already-scheduled free concert in London’s Hyde Park, which had been booked as the live debut of Jones’s replacement in the Stones lineup, guitarist Mick Taylor. The event turned into a Jones memorial of sorts, with Jagger reading excerpts from the Shelley poem "Adonais,” stagehands releasing 3,500 white butterflies into the sky, and the band playing one of Jones's favorites tunes, Johnny Winter’s "I'm Yours and I'm Hers.” Wyman estimates that about half a million fans attended. “It was extraordinary, that day,” he wistfully recalls in his film.

Brian Jones on the set of the Rolling Stones' 'Rock and Roll Circus,' about seven months before his death. (Photo: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns)

However, Watts and Wyman were the only two Rolling Stones band members to attend Jones’s actual funeral service. Wyman bitterly recalls that chaotic day in one of The Quiet One’s archival interviews. “The press was so bad at the funeral. I mean, everybody's around the grave, you know, and they're putting the coffin in and all that and the preacher's reading out and all his family and relatives are all like tranquilized and everything. Everybody's crying, upset. There's thousands of fans everywhere. There's kids running up to you asking for autographs, and there's press guys with cameras everywhere, like all leaning over you and getting snaps in the grave. ... There was no respect at all.”

But Wyman, who left the Rolling Stones in 1993, has fond memories of his fallen friend, and speaks very respectfully of Jones in his Yahoo interview. “Really, he was the most intelligent [Stones member]. He had the best school reports, he passed all the exams more than anybody else. He was very well-spoken, very educated, and he could be absolutely brilliant. … But there was a naughty part that he had as well, so he could be really cheeky sometimes.”

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:

Follow Lyndsey on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, Spotify.

Want daily pop culture news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Entertainment & Lifestyle’s newsletter.