Rock & roll lost one of its greatest sidemen on Tuesday with the death of Bobby Keys, who recorded and toured with the Rolling Stones for more than 40 years. Keys was responsible for the powerful saxophone wail heard on classics like “Brown Sugar,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and “Sweet Virginia” and was a larger-than-life personality onstage and off. Rolling Stone spoke to Keith Richards about Keys, who called the musician his “greatest pal in the world.”
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.
Originally, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” was going to be just the front piece of the song, and then for some reason, everybody kept playing and we got that wonderful extension by Bobby. So we decided to let the track roll.
And then, of course, there’s “Brown Sugar.” There was that gap left in the track and we didn’t know whether to put a guitar solo on. Bob said, “Look, let me have a bash.” And it was obvious that it was the most perfect rock & roll solo. We all knew it once we heard it.