Ben Keith: Multi-instrumentalist, producer and integral member of Neil Young's band
When Neil Young came to Nashville to tape an appearance for The Johnny Cash Show on ABC television in February 1971, he had dinner with Elliot Mazer, the record producer who had left New York for the capital of country music and designed and built Quadrafonic Sound Studios in a two-storey house there. The singer-songwriter expressed a desire to use this facility and said all he needed was a rhythm section and a pedal steel guitarist. Mazer suggested Area Code 615 drummer Kenny Buttrey and then bassist Tim Drummond, who in turn mentioned local musician Ben Keith, one of Nashville's "A Team" of session players, best known at that point for playing the beautiful harmony part on Patsy Cline's signature song "I Fall to Pieces" in 1961. "I'd heard of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, of course," Keith later recalled. "But I had no idea that Neil recorded solo. I arrived for the session after he'd already started playing, so I set up real quietly, and I could tell this was not just another session, that this guy had some real magic happening. We cut half the album before he stopped to introduce himself! After that it got pretty exciting."
The tracks that Keith added melodic, minimalist, melancholy counterpoints to included the US chart-topper "Heart of Gold" and the Top 40 hit "Old Man" and formed the core of Harvest, a No 1 album on both sides of the Atlantic in 1972. The landmark recording established Young as a solo artist and set him on his way to his current standing and status as one of the most influential figures in rock music. Over the last 39 years, the talented and versatile Keith was a frequent Young collaborator and a mainstay of his many tours. As well as his distinctive pedal steel, lap steel, slide guitar and Dobro, Keith could play any instrument he picked up – Wurlitzer electric piano, Hammond B-3 organ, alto saxophone – and seemed able to adapt to any style Young fancied tackling. Keith contributed to close to 20 of the singer-songwriter's albums, including Time Fades Away, On the Beach, Tonight's the Night, American Stars '*Bars, Comes a Time, Hawks & Doves, Trans, Everybody's Rockin', Old Ways, This Note's for You, Freedom, Harvest Moon, Silver & Gold, Prairie Wind – he co-produced the last three – as well as Unplugged, Chrome Dreams II, Fork in the Road and the CSNY albums Looking Forward and Déjà Vu Live.
An in-demand session man, he also made two albums of his own: To a Wild Rose in 1984 and ten years later, Seven Gates: A Christmas Album By Ben Keith and Friends, featuring festive songs interpreted by J J Cale, Johnny Cash and Nicolette Larson as well as Neil and Pegi Young. Keith recorded with, amongst others, The Band, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Terry Reid, Linda Ronstadt, Todd Rundgren, Ringo Starr and Warren Zevon.
He proved a simpatico, sensitive producer for Willie Nelson, Steve Forbert and Jewel, most notably on Pieces of You, her multi-million selling 1995 debut. "I was signed to Atlantic Records, completely ignorant about the music business. I met with maybe 50 different producers, and a lot of them wanted to change what I did. Ben was the first who made me feel comfortable with who and what I was," Jewel said of the recording which took place on Young's ranch in La Honda, California. "Ben had the mentality of "Let the musician be the musician". He believed in me when I didn't know how to believe in myself. He was a champion of the song and the songwriter, no matter what. He helped give me confidence. He wanted to pay homage to the song, with no over-singing and no over-playing. He produced that album, and we both hit the frickin' goldmine. We were dark horses that beat the odds."
Born Bennett Keith Schaeufele in Kansas, he grew up in Bowling Green, Kentucky and moved to Nashville age 19, in 1956. The secretary at the local branch of the musicians union advised him to change his name to the easier to memorise Ben Keith in order to facilitate bookings. After spending 15 years working with country artists like Faron Young and picking up pedal steel guitar tips from Buddy Emmons and Jimmy Day and production tips from the likes of Chet Atkins, he rather took to the rock lifestyle when he began touring with Young in 1973. "It really was sex, drugs and rock'n'roll," he admitted. "Kind of crazy, I guess. I'm just glad I lived through it."
In 2004, Keith played the role of Grandpa Green in Young's film of the stage production of the concept album Greendale. He was part of Young's band for the lengthy 2007-2009 world tour which included several shows in London, including a headline appearance at Hard Rock Calling in Hyde Park last year. He died of a suspected heart attack at the Youngs' ranch in La Honda.
Jonathan Demme, who directed the concert films Neil Young Truck Show (2009) and Heart of Gold (2006), which both featured Keith, called him "an elegant, beautiful dude, and obviously a genius. He could play every instrument. He was literally the bandleader on any of that stuff. Neil has all the confidence in the world, but with Ben on board, there were no limits. Neil has a fair measure of the greatness of his music, but he knew he was even better when Ben was there."
Young often referred to Ben Keith as "Brother Ben" and dedicated the wistful "Old Man" to his memory at a concert in Winnipeg last week. Paying tribute to Keith on his website, Young said, "I will miss him every time I look to my side, remembering him, my brother and fellow traveller."
Bennett Keith Schaeufele (Ben Keith), multi-instrumentalist, producer, singer, songwriter: born Fort Riley, Kansas 6 March 1937; married (one daughter); died La Honda, California 26 July 2010.
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