Ben Keith, a steel guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who played alongside Neil Young for nearly 40 years, has died of unknown causes. He was 73. Highly skilled on the electric guitar, piano, alto saxophone and pedal-steel, he contributed to countless Young classics including “Heart of Gold,” “Rockin’ in the Free World,” “Tonight’s the Night” and “Old Man.” Young acknowledged Keith’s passing onstage last night in Winnipeg, noting from the stage, “This is for Ben Keith,” before playing “Old Man.” “His spirit will live on. The Earth has taken him.”
Prior to his association with Young, Keith was a member of Nashville’s “A-Team” — a collective of the city’s top session musicians of the 1950s and 1960s. He played on many country classics of the era, including Patsy Cline’s classic “I Fall To Pieces.” In February of 1971 Young was in Nashville to appear on the Johnny Cash show and begin work on Harvest. Keith’s friend Tim Drummond was recruited to play bass and he suggested that his friend Ben — who lived just two blocks away from the studio — come in to play steel guitar. “They were already recording at the time,” Keith said in the 2005 concert movie Heart of Gold. “I set up my steel and kind of snuck in there and started playing and we did five songs before we ever stopped and introduced ourselves.” Young took him on the road for the infamous 1973 Times Fades Away tour, and after that he remained a part of nearly every touring band (excluding Crazy Horse) for the next four decades.
Keith’s close ties with Young helped the guitarist become an in-demand session musician on rock albums in the 1970s, and he worked with everybody from the Band to Warren Zevon to Todd Rundgren. In 1995 he produced Jewel’s debut album Pieces of You, which went on to sell over 5 million records. “I knew when I first heard Jewel that she was plowing new ground,” Keith said. “She came to Neil’s ranch and cut about 20 songs, each of us just kind of checking things out. It’s funny, she reminded me of Patsy Cline, in a way.”
Keith played in Young’s touring band on his 2007-’09 world tour and last performed with him at the Bridge School Benefit last October. Just last month he played guitar as part of Neil’s wife Pegi’s band on a short California club tour opening up for Bert Jansch. (Read Rolling Stone‘s report from Young’s most recent tour here.)