THERE ARE SOME THINGS,” Keith Richards says with a wry chuckle, “that you can’t rush.”
The legendary Rolling Stones guitarist is referring to the second album from the Jamaican musical collective known as Wingless Angels. The new record — a long-term passion project for Richards, who produced and played on the disc — comes somewhat belatedly, 13 years after the group’s debut.
“Well, I never even envisioned making the fi rst one,” Richards explains. “I’ve been playing with these guys since the early ’70s. It was just something we all did whenever I was in Jamaica. The guys would come around, and we’d play and sing. We didn’t consider taking it any further than that.”
Spanning some four decades, Richards’ connection to the Wingless Angels is a deep one. He first decamped to Jamaica in 1972 to record the Stones album Goat Head’s Soup and promptly became enraptured by the island, purchasing a home in Ocho Rios (near Steer Town, one of the country’s fi rst Rastafarian communities). But his relationship with reggae goes back even further, to his earliest days with the Stones. “Growing up in London in the ’60s, the West Indies music scene was there, rumbling away in the background,” he says. The music would come to influence a number of Stones tracks over the years, from “Cherry Oh Baby” off 1976’s Black and Blue to “Too Rude” on 1986’s Dirty Work.
During his earliest island forays, Richards fell in with a group of Rastas who congregated on the beach playing Nyabinghi music — a combination of hypnotic, African-style hand drumming and chanted songs derived from old Christian hymns.
“These guys were basically fishermen, divers or just beachcombers,” Richards says. “What fascinated me was that this was just part of their daily life. They got up and worked on a beach, or went out and caught some fish, then came home in the evening and started beating the drums.”
At first, Richards only watched the jam sessions from afar — trying, as he puts it, to be “as unobtrusive as a white man can be in Steer Town” — but eventually he was invited to participate. The band consisted of mostly amateur players and one fellow showbiz professional, singer Justin Hinds, who’d been a key pioneer of ska and early reggae with his group the Dominoes. Hinds and Richards hit it off, sparking a long friendship. “Justin was a beautiful singer, just so lovely and warm,” Richards remembers, “as well as the fl ashiest dresser in Steer Town.”
Though there were a few aborted attempts to record the collective in a conventional studio in the mid ’70s, it wasn’t until the early ’90s that the Angels would finally be captured on tape, cutting in an open room at Richards’ home with the aid of a mobile studio.
The resulting 1997 album, Wingless Angels, was an ethnomusicological experiment of sorts — one that found Richards adding his own guitar and keyboard parts while bringing a variety of disparate touches and textures, including Irish tin whistle and violin — to create a subtle and unique sound. “I was amazed by the response when I played the first album [for the Angels],” he recalls. “Justin said, ‘You have made magic out of us all.’ It was like, ‘Hey, man, fine — as long as you like it.’ ”
In more recent years, Richards returned to Jamaica and began jamming with the Angels at a friend’s rehearsal studio, recording the sessions along the way. “Though we were recording, we weren’t looking at putting another album out,” he says. “With Rastas, you’ve just got to let things fall together. If you planned anything with those guys, it wouldn’t work.”
Ultimately, it was Hinds’ death from lung cancer in 2005 that prompted Richards to complete the second Wingless Angels collection. The new material is being released as part of a dual album called Wingless Angels I & II (Mindless Records, $19), which also contains a reissue of the first record. It serves as a fitting epitaph for Hinds, as well as for Angels drummer Locksley Whitlock, who died just a few months after Hinds did.
For Richards, the Wingless Angels project remains close to his heart. “It has the capability, like the best music, to be spiritual,” he says. “It does have an uplifting quality. You just put it on, lie back and let that beat take you away.”