By Michael Corcoran
The pasty little guys from England, ready to go on next, were getting a big kick out of singer Bobby Vee’s saxophonist, whose only pair of black suit pants ripped before showtime, so he was onstage playing in Bermuda shorts and cowboy boots. Hanging out later that night at the Ramada Inn, the sax man’s big West Texas drawl fascinated the Brits further. And then there was the Buddy Holly connection.
Bobby Keys was the larger-than-life Texan the Rolling Stones had hoped to meet on their first visit to the mythical Lone Star State to play the Teenage World’s Fair in 1964. The show at the Joe Freeman Coliseum, with George Jones headlining, was the band’s second-ever concert in the U.S. and the new single they played was a cover of Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”
“When they heard that I knew Buddy Holly, that’s all they wanted to talk about,” said Keys, the Lubbock County native who added honking, squealing tenor sax to the Stones’ guitar-based sound in 1969 and has been the group’s most popular sideman ever since. Almost as much as Mick Jagger’s haze-cutting vocals, Keith Richards’ driving guitar and Charlie Watt’s flawless backbeat, Keys’ robust sax work on such albums as Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street define the Rolling Stones’ danger soul period.
Keys had lived since the early ’90s in Nashville, where he fronted a bar band called Insufferable Bastards. He liked to keep sharp on the sax, especially since he had a stroke a few years ago and had to relearn much. Residuals from the sale of Rolling Stones records still paid the bills, he said, but the biggest money- and most fun- came when he played live with the Stones.
“It’s a very well-paying gig and they give me free clothes,” Keys said when I interviewed him in 2012, ready and eager to play the first Stones concerts in over five years. “Plus, I know all the songs.”
With a personality as extroverted as his sax playing, Keys contributed almost as much to the Stones mythology as he had to their discography. He was Keith Richards’ best friend- they were born hours apart on Dec. 18, 1943- described by “Keef” in his book “Life” as “a soul of rock and roll, a solid man, also a depraved maniac.” With a quick wit, exuberant laugh and rich stories, Keys was a walking party, but, he said he gave up the hard stuff a long time ago. In later years, he and Richards mostly played dominoes when they hung out.
“I think at first I was a bit of a novelty in London,” said Keys, who lived in George Harrison’s house, then shared a flat with Mick Jagger in 1970. “It was like ‘meet my crazy friend from Texas. Put drugs and alcohol inside him and watch what he does.’” Jagger and Keys were both single and doing the party scene. “It was a good time to be Bobby Keys.”
Some famous Keys stories: He once filled a bathtub with Dom Perignon to impress a French woman he met at the hotel bar. He inadvertently started a fire at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago. Then, there’s the 1972 tour footage, which Keys now regrets participating in, of him and Richards heaving a TV set out of the 10th floor window of a hotel. It was the filmmaker Robert Franks’ idea, he said.
“To this day, that’s how a lot of folks know me. I could say, ‘but I played on all these great records’ and most people would go, ‘yeah, but you’re the guy who threw the TV set out the window.”
If Keys had never met the Stones, never played with them, he’d still have an impressive resume. As a 14-year-old he ran errands and occasionally sat in with Holly and the Crickets, then left Slaton, 10 miles south of Lubbock, for good when he took to the road with Buddy Knox of “Party Doll” fame.
Keys claimed to have played baritone sax on the Elvis Presley hit “Return To Sender” as an 18-year-old in 1962. In his 2012 autobiography Every Night Is a Saturday Night, Keys wrote that Glen D. Hardin, a friend from Lubbock making a name as L.A. sessionista, got him the Presley gig. The evidence, however, points to Boots Randolph as the sax player on the session. “I remember Elvis coming into the control room (during the session) and I was thinking to myself, “Nobody’s gonna believe me,’” Keys said, which seems to be the case. Hardin didn’t meet Presley until he joined his band in 1970. One theory is that Keys told the Stones he had once recorded with Elvis and then had to keep the fib going for 50 years.
There’s no question, however, that Keys’ stint in L.A. soul/rock band Delaney & Bonnie and Friends from ‘67- ’69 established him as rock’s most soulful sax player- the white King Curtis. When pianist/ arranger Leon Russell put together a band for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, he tapped Keys, who was portrayed as a storytelling ladies man on the tour documentary.
His musical partner since D&B has been Fort Worth-born trumpet player Jim Price, who studied at North Texas State in Denton. “Jim is well-schooled and has perfect pitch, whereas I can’t read music and I’m sometimes a little off key,” said Keys. “He’ll get on me sometimes and I’ll say, “Man, that’s why we’re so good together. We’re different.” Known as the Texas Horns, Keys and Price were in-demand session players whose credits include Eric Clapton, Harry Nilsson and solo albums by all the Beatles besides Paul.
Clapton asked them to be in a new band he was forming called Derek and the Dominos in 1970. But when Keys and Price arrived in London, they were picked up at the airport by George Harrison’s assistant, not Clapton’s. It turned out that Clapton decided against using a horn section for Layla and Other Assorted Love Stories, but as a consolation he hooked the Texans up with Harrison, who was recording All Things Must Pass. That’s Keys and Price on the hit “What Is Life.”
“I’d have to say that a lot of the good things that have happened in my career was from being in the right place at the right time,” said Keys, who also created his own luck by hustling at London recording studios. Keys and Price would often show up to sessions, unbooked, with their horns. “The bands would play us what they’d recorded and we’d say, ‘that sounds great, but you know what would make it sound ever better?’” With “more saxophone!” as his mantra, Keys received credits on albums by the Who, Faces, Donovan, Humble Pie and many more. After his powerhouse solo on “Brown Sugar” in 1971, everybody wanted that Bobby Keys sound.
Modeling his raucous, heavily-articulated style after the Texas Tenors- a sax contingent that also included Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb from Houston, Fort Worth’s King Curtis, Clifford Scott of San Antonio and David “Fathead” Newman of Dallas- Keys became in-demand by fusing the big-as-Texas tone to guitar-driven rock bands.
“King Curtis was my main man,” Keys said of the Fort R&B sax great whose most famous solo, “Yakety Yak” by the Coasters, mimicked bluegrass fiddle. Keys’ sax lines were often based on guitar, which made him especially attractive to first wave British rock bands, who all grew out of American rhythm and blues.
“Brown Sugar” was in the can, recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala. during the Stones 1969 tour without a sax solo, when Keys joined a jam on the tune at a birthday party for he and Richards at London’s Olympic Studio on Dec. 18, 1970. “Mick said, ‘well, that sounded good, but I don’t think it’ll make the record,’” Keys recalled. A few days later, however, Keys was overdubbing what would become his most famous solo.
“I only know the first note I’m going to play,” Keys said of his improvised solos, “after that I’m taking my inspiration from the band.”
With his participation ramped up on Exile On Main Street, recorded in the basement of Richards’ rented villa in the south of France, Keys was becoming known as the Sixth Stone. But getting caught up in the lifestyle led to his exit from the band in ’73. Addicted to heroin, he left abruptly for rehab, with Richards footing the bill. “Nobody quits the Rolling Stones,” said Keys, who tried to get back in the band after he kicked junk, but was rebuffed.
He found studio work, however, with his former next-door neighbor John Lennon, in the midst of the ex-Beatle’s famous “Lost Weekend” that lasted from ’73- ’75. Lennon hired Keys for the horn section of ‘74’s Walls and Bridges, and when Lennon said the horn charts were almost ready, Keys was mortified. He couldn’t read music and the other horn players, studio top guns, could and Keys feared death by embarrassment. “John took me to the stairwell and, with an acoustic guitar, played me all my parts. He kept going until I had it down, one of the many reasons I loved that man.”
Featuring a Keys sax solo, “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” became Lennon’s first No. 1 single as a solo artist.
At Richards insistence, Keys was eventually let back in the Rolling Stones, though “Mick has never forgiven me,” Keys said. For 1989’s Steel Wheels, which would take millions of corporate sponsorship dollars to redefine the mega rock tour, Jagger hired a sax player to duplicate Keys’ famous parts.
“Keith told me to show up for the first show (at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island) and I thought he’d smoothed it all out,” said Keys. When the sax player knocked on the backstage door Jagger answered it with a stunned look. “What are you doing here?” he asked, then spun around and walked away. Keys jumped onstage to play “Brown Sugar” that night and stayed on the tour.
The Stones had occasionally gone to sax virtuosos like Sonny Rollins, but the more primitive Keys is the one that makes them sound most like the Rolling Stones. When he blows into that big sax, Lubbock comes out. You hear Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison and King Curtis and a kid from Slaton falling in love with rock n’ roll.
Eventually, Richards got Keys officially back in the Stones’ touring band, though he was originally relegated to two songs each night: “Honky Tonk Woman” and “Brown Sugar.” During the ’81 tour, he met a fellow Lubbockite, Joe Ely, whose band opened a show in Tempe, AZ. During the next eight years, while the Stones broke from touring, Keys played with Ely’s band. “With the Stones, I never
touched my bags,” Keys said. “Someone packed for me and put my bags on the private jet. So it was a bit of a difference to travel in a van with seven guys. But playing with Joe rekindled the spark of why I wanted to play music in the first place.”
In Ely’s band, Keys carried his belongings in a bowling bag case. “He always kept the title to his car in the bag and I asked him why,” said Ely. “He said it was to remind him of the time he parked at the airport to do a Stones session that was supposed to last a week and he ended up gone for two years.” His car was eventually impounded and he needed the title to get it back.
A September reunion with the Ely band at the Cactus Theater brought Keys back to Lubbock, where he talked about being transformed by hearing rock and roll for the first time. Every rock musician has a story like that; Mick and Keith heard their calling in the sounds of Chuck Berry and Slim Harpo. But Keys’s inspiration didn’t come from hearing records. One morning, when he was about eleven years old, he was awakened by the sound of a loud guitar coming through his bedroom window. He ran out of the house and climbed a tree in his front yard to see a band playing on a flatbed truck. It was the grand opening of a gas station a couple blocks away and the man playing the electric guitar was Buddy Holly.
“That did it for me,” said Keys. “Rock and roll was calling and I said ‘Here I am.’”
The house in Slaton where Bobby Keys grew up has been torn down. But the tree’s still there.
(This is one of 42 profiles from All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music by Michael Corcoran.