When I think of Rock sax players, I think of two of them. One of them was the late Clarence Clemons of the E-Street Band. The other one is Bobby Keys. Between the both of them, they both owed a debt to the late Soul sax player King Curtis. In my mind, there were the both of them and then there was everybody else. I’m sorry to say that in such harsh terms. The way that I see it though, it was practically a universal truth.
I will say this right now just to make certain that I’m clear. After King Curtis, Bobby Keys was the template by which all other sax players needed to learn from. It’s that plain and simple. You could have ended up witnessing guys who played and perhaps touted onstage their great notational ability. But there was one thing they would never get past. It was the ability to use a saxophone as a rhythm instrument to create a foundation for a song to be taken to a higher level. They are Jazz players. They are a different breed. If you take a person like Bobby Keys, you’d find that he played just like his personality and how he reacted with communicating with people around him and his friends. That is, one could say that he hated musical pretense. He wasn’t a hoity-toity. It translated loud and clearly into his playing. In words that he would use, you played with emotion and you expanded upon what was handed down to you from the people you learned from.
I actually feel sorry for all of the younger people who are now going to have the unenviable task of following in Bobby’s footsteps. If they don’t learn about the rhythm in their playing, they’ll end up being a caricature of someone who doesn’t exist.
When all of the greatest musicians on the face of this planet needed some session work, this was the guy who sprang to mind immediately. My God! What a body of work he has left behind. He helped to create a higher level during what many consider to be the greatest period in the history of The Rolling Stones-the Mick Taylor Era. He played with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell (Mad Dogs & Englishmen). He also played for John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. He got to play with Harry Nilsson. He played with Carly Simon, B.B. King, Delaney & Bonnie and Eric Clapton. He was the highest of the high-rung.
Alongside his playing ability, he also had a larger than life personality which was perfectly suited for his best friend Keith Richards. With the exception of a few small factual errors, Bobby put out an autobiography in 2012 that is both a delight and astounding to read. He and Keith should both be in the Miracle Of Survival Hall Of Fame. That autobiography, Every Night’s A Saturday Night: The Rock ‘N’ Roll Life Of Legendary Sax Man Bobby Keys, contains an anecdote about the time the late Stones pianist, Ian Stewart, booked the Stones into a hotel right next to a golf course because of Stu’s love of hitting the ol’ green.
Keith Richards was lodged in a suite above the course. His window was open and Keys was out hitting some balls around when one manages to fly up into the window and land in Keith’s food as he’s getting prepared to eat it. This was during the period of time when Keith began to start carrying a gun around with him for safety reasons. Keys was wondering where the ball went when he heard a shot fired. He goes up and finds that Keith had shot the golf ball with his handgun and warns Keys not let another one land in his breakfast again. This is priceless stuff. And it’s one of those cases where you can forgive these wild and crazy people their imperfect ways. Otherwise, we’d be living in a dull world where no good stories ever get told.
When I heard the news of his passing while driving in my car on the way to visit my Mom, it hit me really hard. Because of the fact that he was the first sax player to ever grab my attention and to know his name while coming to instantly recognize him the moment I would hear a major new single on the radio back in the day, he was favorite sax player in Rock. He had such serious swing. There were so many great performances. Those studio songs just flow through my mind. With The Rolling Stones, there’s “Live With Me”, Brown Sugar”, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?”, “Rip This Joint”, “Sweet Virginia”, among others. There’s John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through The Night”, There’s George Harrison’s “Living In The Material World” and Ringo Starr’s “Photograph”. Those mid-song breaks and backing fills helped to lift those songs so much higher. He made a joyous noise. For live performances, he tore up like nobody’s business. Just take a listen to all of those old 1972 Tour Of America performances with The Rolling Stones. Texas didn’t need heat in the Summer. Keys provided it with his playing.
Another thought I’ve had since I heard the news of his passing is that this completes the departures of the greater outer edges of The Rolling Stones. Ian “Stu” Stewart, Nicky Hopkins and now Bobby Keys. They’re gone now. Those of us who were so incredibly fortunate to have lived through those times can look back on our great luck. We got to speak these names in our conversations.
I wish to send out my heartfelt condolences to Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Mick Taylor and Charlie Watts tonight (as well as all the other great ones who are still with us). You guys have lost a great friend. Bobby Keys can never be replaced. One can only hope that nobody will be foolish enough to try and imitate him.