Legendary saxophone player Bobby Keys has passed away at age 70. Keys was best known for touring with the Rolling Stones for more than 45 years, but his career extended far beyond the band, from a childhood friendship with Buddy Holly to a role in hits by the Plastic Ono Band and George Harrison. In 2012, I spoke with Keys around the release of his book Every Night’s a Saturday Night, discussing his long career and wild past.
I know you went on a lot of those Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars tours early in your career. What were those like?
I was pretty fresh out of Texas at the time that started happening, man, and I find myself rolling down the highway with a bunch of people that had records on the Top 10, like Little Anthony and Little Eva and Major Lance and Billy Stewart and Freddy Cannon. I was listening to some of these very same people less than a year earlier on the radio. Your seating position on the bus sort of determined your status on the tour. And the band went to the back of the bus.
How was the sound at those shows? It was before the Stones created the modern way of touring.
It was really bad. I mean, amplifiers weren’t as big as they are now. There were no monitor systems or anything like that. There’d be a mic for Anthony and another one for the Imperials. And then they had another mic set up for the horn section. But it wasn’t anywhere at all as elaborate as it is today, where every single thing is mic’d. Even the drummer’s underwear.
Who blew you away on those tours?
I always loved Little Anthony and the Imperials. They were like the precursors of the Temptations. I loved their music. Besides that, we shared a common interest in pot.
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It must’ve been hard to find pot in those days.
Well, it was for me because I didn’t know anyone! But I got to be friends with the guys in the Imperials. I’d ask Sammy or Clarence or whoever’s gonna go see the Man to pick me up a bag. And back then, they used to bring it to you in these little penny candy sacks, little brown paper bags. A baggie full of that was like 10 bucks, man and it was [laughs] not like today.
It’s much stronger today, right? I’ve heard that back then it wasn’t that strong.
Ehh. I’ve been smoking pot for over 50 years, and I never let a day go by unless I’m in jail. I am a devout pothead. I have been, will be, don’t see a damn thing wrong with it except the cost. I used to buy this stuff for 90 bucks a kilo. That’s over two pounds. And now, man, they’re selling ounces in New York for about 500 bucks an ounce. Hydroponic grown… it’s ridiculous. It’s absurd. Legalize it, get the tax from it, the country’s broke. Hell, we’ll make an immediate recovery. I myself alone would be sponsoring a great portion of that. And I’ve got a number of friends who feel the same way.
You knew Buddy Holly early on. What was he like?
I didn’t know Buddy real well because he was older than me. There’s a big social difference in a four or five year age difference. I remember one afternoon, he was out on his front porch and he was sitting in rocking chair. And I just wandered over across the street from my aunt’s house. And he was saying, “You know Robert, I believe I’m gonna make it.” And I look him and I say, “I don’t think so, I just don’t see it, pal.” I was just kidding. Buddy was a pretty energetic fella. He was the first guy I heard play electric guitar, and it impressed the hell out of me.
In your book you write about playing on “The Wanderer.” You really just wandered into that session?
Yeah, as a matter fact I did. I really didn’t know if it was me on the record until about six months ago. Another horn player I know talked to Dion about it. He said he remembered me there, but I was a little out of tune and they had another guy come in the next day and play the exact same part that I did. But I can’t tell the difference. I think it’s me [laughs]. I know how I sound. But that was the first time I ever heard myself on the radio on a hit record.
What was that like?
Well, son, that was just like getting the keys to the new car. It was a lot of fun, it made me feel real good.
Did you think that song was going to be a classic?
No, I didn’t! But you know, the first session I did with the Stones was an accident. I just happened to be wandering down the hallway of the same studio. I was there with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends and the Stones were there doing the overdubs on, what the hell was it… one of those early albums. One of those good ones. They were still on Decca at the time. What the hell was it… had a birthday cake on the front of it!
Let It Bleed.
Yeah, that was the first time I recorded with the Stones. I just happened to run into Keith in the hallway. And the guy that had produced Delaney & Bonnie and Eric Clapton’s live album, Jimmy Miller, was also there producing the Stones album. I had met him in England when I was there before. Anyway, he suggested to Mick that this track they had, they were kind of wondering what to do, maybe they put a saxophone solo on it. So they came down to the studio, in Studio B where I was with Delaney & Bonnie and said, “Hey, get your horn and come on to Studio A.” So that’s what I did. A couple of takes, and there it was. Voila! My first Rolling Stones record.
In your book you talk about the 1970s when everyone still lived in England, when you could go over to Ringo’s house or Ronnie’s house or Keith’s house or Rod’s house. What was that like to be in the middle of that?
Well, I’ll tell ya, I went around smiling a lot. It was great fun because it was like one big sort of fraternal boys club. There was nothing sinister going on. It was like everybody had shiny brand new records out that they were selling and everybody was bopping up and down King’s Road and going to pubs and clubs and there was a lot of music going on, man. Everybody was wearing shiny pants and alligator shoes. It was really cool. Everybody still lived there. I was staying with Jagger, and there was always folks driving by there. And Keith just lived down in the next block. It was a party! It was great! It was wonderful! If somebody said, “Sit down and map out your rock & roll fantasyland,” that would’ve been about it.
Can you talk about how the “Brown Sugar” solo came together?
That came together at Keith and my birthday party in England. I guess that would’ve been 1970 of 1971. Originally “Brown Sugar” had a guitar solo, Mick Taylor put a guitar solo on it. In fact, some of the very early pressings came out with the guitar solo on it. But there was a birthday party with me and Keith and Eric Clapton and George Harrison and Ringo and Keith Moon, a whole bunch of other people. And we started to have a jam session. I don’t remember exactly what the process was now, but we ended up playing “Brown Sugar.” And I just played that solo on it. And Jimmy Miller, who was there that night, and Mick said, “Can you do that again?” I said, “Hell, I don’t know what I did then, but if I did it once I can do it again.” I think we made a date – we didn’t do it the night of the party, but I came back in and did the solo. It was the first take.
Any other sessions with the Stones that really stand out to you as your favorites?
Oh, man. Well, I gotta say, the time in the South of France [for Exile on Main St.] stands out, pretty much. That was about a six-month-long session. It’s hard to say. I loved the sessions I did with John Lennon for “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night.” That was one take. I try to play the best I can every time I play. But there’s just some folks that seem to draw a little bit of that extra special out of you. And that’s what I’ve felt, primarily with the Stones and with John. And Delaney & Bonnie and Joe Cocker!
What’s your favorite gig you ever played with the Stones?
I think 1972 Madison Square Garden in July with Stevie Wonder opening the show. I remember plastering a cop right smack in the face with a lemon meringue pie. I remember it was a conclusion of the Stones’ tour in ’72 and New York was definitely Rolling Stones’ town. And I think we played three or four nights at Madison Square Garden, and it was the last night.
You’ve played with a lot of legendary acts. Is there something about the Stones that’s different – a certain magic when they play? They’re not the greatest virtuosos at their instruments, but when they play, they really have a sound.
Yeah! It is. If you believe in the magic of rock & roll, which I devoutly do, it isn’t in the individual. I’ve played in bands with A-team players around. But unless they can play together, it doesn’t do any good. And you can take guys who may not stand on their own up against a bunch of individuals they might be compared to, but you put ’em together, man, and they are unique unto themselves in a way that no one else can touch. You can get the finest A-team musicians in the world, put ’em together, and there’s no guarantee it’s gonna swing. But these guys, man, they’ve just got that natural thing about it. That’s part of the music that I come from, cause I can’t read music, I have no idea what’s gonna come out of that horn half the time. I mean, I have an idea now. But I can’t read music. That’s not where I come from musically. I come strictly from feeling, and that feeling comes from rock & roll.