For those that have never heard of him, Bobby Keys was arguably the most important saxophone sideman in rock and roll history. From Wikipedia:
Robert Henry "Bobby" Keys (December 18, 1943 – December 2, 2014) was an American saxophone player who performed with other musicians as a member of several horn sections of the 1970s. He appears on albums by The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Who, Harry Nilsson, Delaney Bramlett, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker and other prominent musicians. Keys played on hundreds of recordings and was a touring musician from 1956 until his death in 2014.
And that’s only a short list. If you go to the bottom of the page you’ll see a longer list of almost every who’s who in pop music. He passed away last week at the remarkable age of 70. I say remarkable because given the amount of alcohol and drugs he was supposed to have ingested over his life time, you would say he lived a long life.
Of all those groups and musicians, there is no doubt he was most associated with the Rolling Stones. While the Stones have used other saxophonists over the years on their albums, some of the Stones’ biggest hits scored with a sax had Bobby Keys on the instrument. I only know of Keys because I’m a big Rolling Stones fan and I pay attention to band credits and personnel. Of the band members, he was particularly close to Keith Richards, who besides the love of rock and its history, besides partaking in certain illegally encapsulated stimulates, also shared the same exact birth date of December 18th, 1943. Keith always said he didn’t have to worry about dying until something happened to Bobby. I think I remember Keith saying he considered Bobby a sort of twin, which is quite funny because Bobby is a sort of Texas “good-ole-boy” and Keith is from London.
Here’s Keith remembering Bobby, just published in Rolling Stone magazine.
Bobby Keys was built for fun. When we were making Exile on Main Street in France, we were there for several months, and I had a good ole speedboat. In the afternoons, before we went down the basement to record, we'd sort of zoom around, creating mayhem from Monte Carlo to Cannes. Bobby also bought a huge motorcycle, which he used to roar around the hills and pick up a few girlfriends. He'd always come back with a different chick on the back. He was that kind of guy.
He was the epitome of the rock & roll sax-playing man. He used to tell me about listening to Buddy Holly rehearse in his garage just down the road from his house. That's one of the reasons he wanted to get into music. That's pretty early rock & roll, so he was right in there at the very beginning. He was playing on the road by the time he was 15. He was a piece of history in himself, and had a deep knowledge of it.
When we brought Bobby in, we were listening to the great soul bands of the Sixties. We wanted to give the band a bigger sound and were influenced by all of the beautiful R&B records with the Memphis horns — the Otis and the Pickett bands — so adding saxes seemed quite natural to us. When I first met him, he had Jim Price with him on trumpet and they were a hot little duo themselves. I think they were with Delaney & Bonnie at the time.
When he cut "Live With Me," his first record with us, I immediately thought of great players like Plas Johnson or Lee Allen, who played for Little Richard and Fats Domino. He had that same Southern feel on the way he played. I guess that's not too astounding, since he does come from Texas [laughs]. He never let anybody forget he was from Texas.
Being in a guitar band, Bobby had an incredible knack of making horns melt in. He always knew the right part to play. I remember when we cut "Happy." One afternoon, I just had this idea and the rest of the boys hadn't turned up yet. It was just Bobby and Jimmy Miller, our producer at the time, who also plays drums. We cut the finished track in about an hour. Bobby was amazing on that, because instrumentation-wise, that started off just guitar, a baritone sax and some drums. Bobby's baritone part just picked it up. Usually, Bobby would just wail in first on the baritone, then he'd add the tenor, sometimes an alto.
There’s more to read, and it’s all interesting but I love the way Keith ends the discussion.
His love of music, I think, is his other defining attribute. If we got interested in something, like a piece of music, we'd stay up until we'd killed it. I think he must have turned on millions of people, even though a lot of them don't know who he was. He's one of those hidden geniuses, 10 feet from stardom and all of that.
Bobby took everybody as they came. He wouldn't be weary of people. He had a large heart. He told me, "I got a heart as big as Texas" and I said, "Bobby, I think it's a bit larger." He was just a barrel of laughs to be around. I very rarely saw him down, and if I did, it was usually about a young lady who dumped him or something. And he soon got over that, you know. He probably wouldn't want us to be too solemn right now. Basically when it's all said and done, I'm looking upon this now as a celebration of life rather than a memorial for his death. He'd like a big wake.
It's a sad thing, but not totally unexpected. I've been speaking to him for the last couple of weeks and he was still laughing, but he was getting weak. I just wanted to cheer him up.
As Bob said, "It's time for the last roundup."
Now this website, Ultimate Classic Rock, put together a list of the “Top Ten Bobby Keys Rolling Stones Songs” and I think they mostly got it right with two exceptions. They left off lovely textured song with a soft Bobby Keys tenor sax solo, “Coming Down Again,” from off the 1973 Goats Head Soup album. And then I would include a great funky song called “Dance (Part 1)” from the 1980 Emotional Rescue album. I know I took “Happy” off the website’s list, and while it may be overall a better song than some of those on the list, I don’t think Bobby Keys’ sax plays as an important a role as in these other songs. I also don’t quite agree with hierarchy of the ten songs on that list. Here’s how I would rate the Top Ten Bobby Keys Stones songs:
1. Brown Sugar
2. Can’t You Hear Me Knocking
3. Sweet Virginia
4. Emotional Rescue
5. Rip This Joint
6. Coming Down Again
7. All About You
8. Live With Me
9. Casino Boogie
10. Dance (Part 1)
Here’s a couple of clips. Listen to how his solo transforms Brown Sugar at the 1:40 mark.
Here’s a live version of “Sweet Virginia.” Bobby Keys comes in at the 2:45 mark.
You can easily find clips of all those ten songs on youtube. I love those songs. It feels like I’ve lost a part of my youth. It will really hurt when a core member of the Stones goes. Finally Keith penned a note to Bobby on hearing of his passing and posted it I think on his Facebook page. I’m not on Facebook to verify.