The musical synergy between Keith Richards and Tom Waits has been in effect for nearly 40 years. The pair didn’t work together until they were each established, with Richards having made his name in The Rolling Stones while Waits slogged through the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s as a fish out of water. Their shared love of traditional American musical styles ultimately brought them together for the first time on Waits’ classic 1985 album Rain Dogs.
“There was something in there that I thought he would understand,” Waits later explained. “I picked out a couple of songs that I thought he would understand, and he did. He’s got a great voice, and he’s just a great spirit in the studio. He’s very spontaneous, he moves like some kind of animal. I was trying to explain ‘Big Black Mariah’ and finally, I started to move in a certain way, and he said, ‘Oh, why didn’t you do that to begin with? Now I know what you’re talking about.’ It’s like animal instinct.”
Waits quickly returned the favour by appearing as a backing vocalist on The Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work album the following year. Richards and Waits remained close, with the duo co-writing and dueting on the track ‘That Feel’ from Waits’ 1992 album Bone Machine.
Those same instincts that Waits attributed to Richards in 1985 were obviously still intact in 2011. That year, Richards contributed to four songs on Waits’ 17th studio album, Bad As Me. Richards’ signature guitar twang can be heard on tracks like ‘Chicago’, ‘Satisfied’, and ‘Hell Broke Luce’. All those years later, Richards still had that inherent connection with Waits’ music.
“He has impeccable instincts about what a song needs and doesn’t need,” Waits said about Richards in a 2011 interview with The New York Times. “If you’re doing an overdub, he wants to hear everybody who played on it because he wants to know, ‘Where do I sit? I want to know everybody who’s there. Maybe I have to stand behind somebody. Maybe I have to knock somebody over and get in their place’. That kind of thing.”
“Musically, what I noticed about Keith, is he’s really big on detail,” Waits added in the 2015 Netflix documentary Keith Richards: Under the Influence. “And you have to be if you’re an archaeologist. You insist on locality data, you know? Not only where something came from but what are the principles and properties of it. He’s like a London cabbie that has the knowledge; only he has that in music.”