Bobby Keys is the greatest rock saxophone player of all time. My source on this is Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones. Charlie ought to know – he was there. I’m glad I was there too on 18 October 2012 when Bobby and his band, The Suffering Bastards, played the Magic Bag theater in Ferndale, Michigan. I had no idea who Bobby Keys was when I bought a copy of Exile on Main St in the early ’80s, but by 2012 I was well aware of the man and the gnarly musk of his tenor sax tone.
As a tenor player myself, Bobby’s contribution to the rock canon is special to me. Thanks to his memoir, Every Night’s a Saturday Night, and the Jeff Stacey documentary film of the same name, not to mention his extensive body of work, I feel I’ve gotten to know him a little bit. A misfit kid from Lubbock, Texas, his grandfather signed guardianship of 15-year old Bobby over to a drummer and he ended up on the Concord bumping rails with Keith Richards. And John Lennon. And Harry Nilsson. And Joe Cocker. And Warren Zevon. And Eric Clapton. He was a side man to many great artists, and partied his ass off in the process.
Many of us know Bobby Keys as the sixth Stones brother. He met England’s newest hit-makers in 1965 when he was in teen idol Bobby Vee’s band. They played the San Antonio Teen World Fair, which featured the Stones. Bobby ripped his band pants and played his set in a pair of Bermuda shorts and cowboy boots. Quoth Keith, “That’s when I first recognized Bobby Keys as being an extra special piece of work.”
Bobby had a prodigious run with the Stones in the 70s, but he worked tirelessly from the late ’50s until he died in 2014 at age 70. He recalled hanging around at studios, horn at the ready, eager to play with anyone. Following is just a sample of the choice tracks on which Bobby Keys played during his charmed career.
“Where There’s a Will There’s a Way”
from the Delaney & Bonnie & Friends album On Tour with Eric Clapton
This is where things really took off for Bobby. He’d moved to LA and met Delaney Bramlett at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. He and trumpeter Jim Price began jamming with Delaney’s now-legendary soul collective that featured Leon Russell and future members of Derek & the Dominos. Eric Clapton eventually left John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers to join Delaney & Bonnie. Bobby remembered the group playing four or five hours a night and then going back to their Matilija Street house to party and listen to music. “We couldn’t wait for the gig to start up again the next day.”
from Joe Cocker’s live album Mad Dogs and Englishmen
After the “& Friends” portion of Delaney & Bonnie split from Mr. & Mrs. Bramlett in a financial dispute, Bobby and the other Friends joined Leon Russell on Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. According to Jim Price, “It was very spontaneous. One day we left [Delaney & Bonnie] and the next day we were at the A&M sound stage rehearsing for the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.” The album cover features a photo of Bobby captioned, “The ruby lipped essence of Lubbock, Texas.” Bobby recalled, “Nobody made any money on that tour.” Crank this clip for maximum effect. Jim blasts a solo at 01:43 and Bobby takes over at 02:05.
“Live With Me”
from the Stones’ album Let it Bleed
“Live With Me” began a storied run for Bobby as Stones side man and Keith Richards’ soul brother (they were both born 18 December 1943). Bobby recalled that the Stones were in the studio at the same time as Delaney & Bonnie. Mick wanted Bonnie to sing the part on “Gimme Shelter” that Merry Clayton eventually made famous. Delaney apparently would have no part of that. Bobby, on the other hand, didn’t give a damn what Delaney thought and blew all over this soul/blues rocker.
from the Stones’ album Sticky Fingers
While Bobby is properly cited much more frequently for his signature Sticky Fingers work on “Brown Sugar” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’,” this song is a great example of the powerful horn support that Bobby and Jim Price brought to many rock songs of the era. While Bobby isn’t featured on this tune with a solo, I’d be surprised if you can listen to it without at some point doing a little air sax or air trumpet. Bah da na na nuh na na nuh na na nunt na!
from the Stones’ album Exile on Main St.
Bobby is all over Exile, and the stories of his antics along the Cote d’Azur in southern France during the Stones’ residency at Nellcote during the recording of this double album are legendary. His love of driving fast reportedly put Charlie Watts off ever riding in a car with him again. The Stones process during these sessions “lacked urgency” and was quite casual and languid. It was different, but Bobby didn’t care. “I’d go outside and sit under a palm tree, drink a beer and smoke a joint and sit back and look at the night sky. It was a rock ‘n’ roll holiday, man. Hell, you’d a had a been dead not to have fun.”
“Sand and Foam”
from Bobby Keys’ eponymous solo album
Bobby’s solo turn from 1972, Bobby Keys, is jammy as hell, featuring an all-star cast and non-stop groovy riffing soul rock. This particular track features a call-and-answer with what sounds like Slowhand himself on slide guitar. Bobby produced, along with drummer Jim Gordon. Gordon’s influence is apparent throughout; he brings the heart of the Delaney & Bonnie soul groove. Tons of Bobby just blowin’ his ass off.
from Nilsson’s album Son of Schmilsson
Bobby took part in John Lennon’s mythic “lost weekend” in Los Angeles, in which Yoko got sick of John’s shit and kicked him out for a while. That also meant partying with Harry Nilsson, Lennon’s wing man. “When I met Harry he looked like a bank teller,” Bobby recalled. “Which is what he was before he got into music. He liked to have a cocktail every now and then and I did too. Maybe more then every now and then.” Listening to Son of Schmilsson, I think it was more than every now and then.
“Whatever Gets You Through the Night”
from John Lennon’s album Walls and Bridges
Bobby had worked with John on the anthemic “Power to the People,” and the two became friends. John apparently had a Scalextric slot car set strung out over two rooms of his apartment. “We’d compete and listen to music,” remembered Bobby. “And have a puff on the old pipe.” He did note that the Walls and Bridges sessions were done completely sober. He was to lead the session for “Whatever,” and John took him through the changes and mapped out the song so Bobby knew what he wanted. John knew that Bobby couldn’t read music, so in the studio John had all the music stands with written parts taken out, so it wouldn’t be awkward for Bobby.
“Join Me in LA”
from Warren Zevon’s eponymous album
It seems almost inevitable that Bobby would connect with Zevon, Bobby’s relentless positive energy nicely balancing Zevon’s cynicism over an “occasional” cocktail. This is the sultry side of Bobby Keys, slithering seductively around the supporting vocal trio of Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt and Rosemary Butler. This is some hard-boiled LA funk noir.
“There Goes the Neighborhood”
from Sheryl Crow’s album The Globe Sessions
This could be a lost Stones track from the ’70s. It’s greasy and groovy and Bobby brings his raspy growl, none the worse for wear some 25 years after his Stones heyday. Bobby helped The Globe Sessions win Best Rock Album at the 1999 Grammys. He fits right in with this updated version of his beloved rock ‘n’ roll.
“Not Fade Away”
live on stage with Joe Ely at Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth
Later in his career, Bobby connected with Texas country singer/songwriter/bandleader Joe Ely and had a great run in Ely’s band. Ely is also a Lubbock boy, and these guys grew up idolizing fellow Lubbock native Buddy Holly. This cover of Holly’s classic, captured in 2009 at a Texas honky-tonk, is a nice intersection of a few of the many paths along Bobby’s musical journey. The Stones’ cover of this song was their first single in the U.S., and it was likely in their set when Bobby met the Stones on that teen review in ’65.
Jeff Stacey didn’t seem to have much trouble lining up people to say nice things about Bobby. Ian McLagan of the Faces recalled, “We had to find a rocker, and he was the only one.” Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top astutely noted, “Bobby’s delivery is more guitar-like than any other horn man I know.” And drummer Jim Keltner summed his friend up, “He was funny and smart and always bordering on being in horrible trouble.” But Bobby’s birthday brother, Keith Richards, said it best, “He’s got a looseness about the rock ‘n’ roll. He knows how to roll.” Adding, “I’m really happy that he’s a mate of mine.”
If you dug this list, check out Jeff Stacey’s excellent film Bobby Keys – Every Night’s a Saturday Night on Amazon Prime Video. You can order Bobby’s memoir on Amazon too.