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.
Bobby and I were on the road together for about two years before we found out that we were actually born within hours of each other. I think we had a passport check somewhere in Europe, so we started to read our passports to each other. “18th of December, 1943, get out of here!” We still never figured out who was older.
We went on a lot of cruises together. It was nuts, you know. Bobby, in those days, was very large on the stimulants and…et cetera. And he always had an incredible list of drinks. He liked the Rusty Nail, which was scotch and Drambuie. I kept up with him as long as I could with that.
Some of the stories are straight out of the movies. Once in the Playboy mansion, we hung out until the bathroom went down. We were smoking and forgot where we were putting the ashes. “Bobby, is it getting a bit smoky in here?” Suddenly, the drapes are smoldering [laughs]. I’m going, “Oh, Hugh Hefner’s gonna love this!” We were thick as thieves.
I remember on our ’73 European tour saying, “Come on Bobby, we’re getting on the plane.” He said, “Damn it Keith, I’m staying here.” He’s got the French whore, a tub full of champagne. “Well Bobs, it might be difficult getting you back in.” And it took me 10 years to get the guy back in the band.
Years later, the Stones were rehearsing for another tour. This was 1980-something, and I bought Bobby a ticket and said, “Just get your ass here. When we rehearse ‘Brown Sugar,’ just sneak up and do the solo, man.” Once we did “Brown Sugar,” Bobby hit the solo and then I looked at Mick like, “You see what I mean, Mick?” And Mick looked at me and says, “Yeah, you can’t argue with that.” Once he just played those few notes, there really was no question. So Mick relented and said, “Okay, let’s get Bob back in the band.”
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.”
As told to Patrick Doyle