Bobby Keys – The Sax Man Cometh

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Bobby Keys will be playing with the Rolling Stones and also doing shows with his own band! By Brian Wise.

Bobby Keys might be best known for his sax solo on the Stones’ classic ‘Brown Sugar’ but the 70-year-old musician, who has recorded and toured with the band since 1969 – with just a few years off for bad behaviour –  has played with plenty of rock’s other great names. He can add to his CV sessions and touring (or both) with three of the Beatles, Joe Cocker, The Who, Eric Clapton, The Faces, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Harry Nilsson, amongst many others.

It is surprising exactly how far back Keys’ career actually goes: he even played in Bobby Vee’s band. (Vee’s career began when he filled in for Buddy Holly at a gig after that fateful plane crash).

In fact, it was while the Texan-born saxophonist was playing with Vee in 1964 – and believe it or not Bob Dylan had briefly played piano in the band some years earlier – that he first met the Rolling Stones when they were also on the bill at the Teenage World Fair in San Antonio.

“I started doing this when I was eleven,” laughs Keys when I mention his history and also that there were press releases mentioning that he playing on Dion’s ‘The Wanderer,’ which would mean that he would have been only eight years old when he recorded it!

“Okay, let me straighten that out,” he says. “That is not me on the record. I played with Dion on some Dick Clark shows. I don’t how it [the rumour]got started. My only association with Dion was on the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars tours. I didn’t play on the record.”

You can turn to the discography included in Key’s autobiography Every Night’s A Saturday Night for a more accurate list that is even more impressive than the erroneous ones online.

“In the 70’s, it was pretty much the horns were always overdubbed after the rhythm section, the main rhythm section laid down the basic track,” explains Keys when I ask him about the recording process back in the early days of his career. “The exception being some of the live recordings like Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen. There’s no overdubs on that. The same for several of the live albums that I’ve played on. Primarily, though, the ones that were recorded in studio – with the exception of a couple I played with John Lennon – they’ve all pretty much been overdubs.”

“It’s different,” he says of the process these days. “I have a friend of mine, Mike Webb, a keyboard player, who has a small studio here in Nashville. With the format that they have now you can exchange tracks. You can be here electronically in a matter of seconds from the West Coast or East Coast or whatever. You just do the overdubs here and send it back.”

“I don’t know how it’s done,” he continues. “I’m very much out of the ‘E’ age, but, I know it can be done. So I can just stay here. If people want me to record, do something on their record, which I’ve done for people from all over – Scotland, Japan and all over the place – they just send a track to my friend in Nashville, to the studio. I go on in. I’ve got an idea of what the customer wants. That’s what I try to do. It’s quite a bit different than it was a long time ago. It’s really changed a lot.”

I mention to Keys that Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love of The Memphis Horns talk a lot about the ‘head arrangements’ that they did when they were playing at Stax. Does he use the same method?

“Yeah, that’s pretty much it exactly,” he agrees. “I listen to the track. The musician has got his own idea, putting horns on in a certain place. You know, a simple line, whatever he wants. He’ll suggest that and I can recreate it, hopefully to his liking.”

Is that what he did with the Stones too?

“No, no, no, no, no!” he laughs. “That was a whole different thing. I was in studio for months and months when I played on their albums. Not necessarily straight. Some of the solos would not be put on until after the track was cut. Those were the horn lines. Those were overdubbed with the exception of just a few.”

The fact that Keys will be here with the Stones this month also affords him a rare opportunity to play with his own band in a series of sideshows – something that has never happened on the Stones’ tours previously.

Keys will be accompanied by his own band The Suffering Bastards who feature Dan Baird from the Georgia Satellites on guitar and vocals, Chark Kinsolving (Spoonful) on guitar, Michael Webb (John Fogerty, Poco) on keyboards, Robert Kearns (Lynyrd Skynyrd) on bass and Brad Pemberton (Ryan Adams and the Cardinals) on drums.

“I’m looking forward to that, too. I really am,” says Keys. “I’ve got a good band. Got some good musicians in it. I hope that people will come out and enjoy the music along with us.”

Keys and his colleagues will be playing a selection of songs from across his considerable career – including a few Stones classics. The band came together in Nashville during the long down periods between Stones tours when Keys wanted to play music for fun.

“There’s not a whole lot of work here in Tennessee for saxophone players,” explains Keys. “So, I found myself with a lot of extra time on my hands. We wanted to have something to do in Nashville on those long nights.

“The songs that are featured are just songs I’ve played or have something to do with in the past – either Stones material or some stuff I did with John Lennon or George Harrison or Joe Cocker. Some stuff just for the fun of it.”

Apart from his time with the Stones, Keys also played with the Beatles as individuals but he also appeared on the very last session that John Lennon and Paul McCartney ever did together back in 1974.

“Vaguely,” laughs Keys when I ask if he recalls the session. “I don’t remember Paul coming into the room and being there. I believe John was a regular occurrence playing in Los Angeles on Sunday nights. He had a sort of boys’ night out under the guise of the Jim Keltner fan club. Paul was down there as was Jack Bruce and some other people. I don’t remember exactly what was going on. There was some crazy times back in the 70’s that are a little fuzzy.”

One of the other musicians involved in those wild LA weekends was the late great Harry Nilsson with whom Keys became close friends and ended up playing on seven of his albums. Keys’ memories of Harry are definitely not fuzzy at all.

“Oh, man,” he says. “Harry was an extraordinary person. I really loved Harry. Harry is the godfather of my son. We were very close friends from the first time that I met Harry. Harry and I got on pretty well right off the top, right at the beginning. He wrote wonderful songs. I miss him very much. I still love to listen to his music.”

“He was very smart man. He wrote wonderful songs. He wrote a lot of songs that were beyond sweet little songs. He also had some beauty that he wanted to express. Before he died, he put a lot of energy into working on prevention of the sale of handguns, which I know was inspired by John Lennon being shot. But anyway, I don’t want to go on about that.”

In his book Keys admits that he even liked to argue with Nilsson.

“He was a great person to argue with. He was extremely smart. It didn’t matter what point of view you had, he could take another point of view. He was very good at arguing. I really enjoyed hanging out with Harry an awful lot. We both liked to argue and he was very good at it.”

Nilsson certainly helped Keys during a difficult phase in his life.

“He turned over his apartment to me,” says the sax man. “He even helped support me get re-established back in Los Angeles. He happened to be going into the studio just about the same time I returned to LA. He not only let me have an apartment, he also hired me to do a lot of work on his albums.”

There’s a touching description in the book about Nilsson’s death. Keys describes how Harry went to bed one night, he kissed his wife, told her he loved her and never woke up again. He died in his sleep in 1994.

“I was really, really saddened when I heard that, heard the news,” recalls keys. “I didn’t expect it. I wasn’t in LA at the time. Yeah, he was a real good one, man. I miss him very much. I still love to listen to his music.”

“There wasn’t the runt in the litter, I don’t think,” says Keys of Nilsson’s recordings.

Keys left the Stones for a few years towards the end of the ‘70s – due to the familiar ‘personal problems’ encountered by so many musicians in that scene. But he returned to the fold in 1981, when Ian McLagan was playing keyboards (just prior to Chuck Leavell joining) and he has been with them ever since.

He was also in the band when the great Nicky Hopkins was playing piano with them and played on Hopkins’ album The Tin Man Was a Dreamer.

“I loved Nicky,” recalls Keys. “We were roommates for a while. We were both playing with Joe Cocker. I really miss Nicky. I was thinking about him the other day. He was such a talented guy. Such a wonderful, wonderful musician. Very interesting person. Very talented person.

“He had some very unfortunate health problems. I felt so sorry for the guy. He had extensive surgery done, it looked like. I’m not sure that all of it was done as well as it could have been done. I know that he did have some problems afterwards. He always played so well. He was such a great keyboard player.

“He was very quiet. He always reminded me of a real life Linus type. You know, he was very quiet. You wouldn’t expect, when he would play some of the most beautiful songs, some of the most beautiful piano. Rolling Stones records, especially those early ones Ian used to be on, the middle ones, he played piano. For a while he was the key piano player in London for everybody.

I did a lot of sessions with Nicky. Not only with the Stones, but with Cocker, and with Ringo and with Harry Nilsson. I have very fond memories of working with Nicky. I miss him a lot.”

Bobby Keys & The Suffering Bastards will be playing selected Australian dates in March & April. Check: Love Police Tours

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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