Bobby Keys: Saxophonist who played with John Lennon, George Harrison and most famously with the Rolling Stones


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The Independent Online

A long-standing associate of the Rolling Stones, the Texan musician Bobby Keys played the blistering tenor saxophone solo which made "Brown Sugar" such an instant, irresistible, infectious, incandescent single in April 1971.

The first release on the group's own label, "Brown Sugar" became a worldwide smash, arguably the second song most synonymous with the Stones – after their epochal 1965 hit "I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" – and provided the perfect launching pad for Sticky Fingers, the No 1 album that introduced them to a new generation of fans and confirmed their status as The World's Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band.

"Brown Sugar" became an integral part of the Stones concert repertoire, with Keys usually called into action to reprise his solo through subsequent tours until September 1973, and again from 1981, until he had to bail out of the 14 On Fire recent dates in Australia and New Zealand. "It doesn't matter how many times I've played 'Brown Sugar', I never get tired of playing it," he said recently. "Whenever I'm doing a concert with those cats, it's not like I'm going through the motions. They are about going out there and delivering on every song. You better damn well commit to doing it good or you won't be doing it again."

Yet adding his saxophone solo was very much an after-thought, the result of happen-stance, and another sign that sharing a birthday with Stones guitarist Keith Richards was more than mere coincidence. As Keys wrote in his memoir Every Night's A Saturday Night: The Rock'n'Roll Life Of Legendary Sax Man Bobby Keys (written with Bill Ditehhafer and published by Omnibus Press in 2012, a test pressing of "Brown Sugar" already existed with a guitar solo by Mick Taylor. "It had originally been recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama, when the Stones were on tour in the US in '69," wrote Keys. "Then, on December 18 1970, Keith and I, who were born on the same day, had a birthday party at Olympic Studios in London and through whatever process – Eric Clapton was there, a whole bunch of people were there – we ended up playing a version of 'Brown Sugar' which I played a solo on. And it pricked up Mick Jagger's and Keith's ears. They said: 'Hey, man, let's do it again!' We made a date to record. We didn't do it the night of the party, but I came back in and did the solo. I remember it was one take. That's the way I remember it anyway."

In his autobiography Life, Richards refers to "the Texan bulldog, a huge warm grin, a handshake to crush a rock." Richards paid this tribute: "I have lost the largest pal in the world and I can't express the sense of sadness I feel although Bobby would tell me to cheer up. "

He first met the Stones in June 1964, at the Teenage World's Fair in San Antonio, Texas, on their maiden American tour. He was backing the headliner, the teen idol Bobby Vee. "After the show, we spent the rest of the night talking, Keith and I, and Brian Jones. That first meeting made a big impact on me." He noted that Richards shared the same determination and no-fear attitude as Buddy Holly, the Texan singer-songwriter whom Keys knew and whose composition "Not Fade Away'' the Stones had covered for their debut US hit.

Keys and Richards reconnected in 1969 when the saxophonist travelled to London with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, and added some overdubs to "Live With Me", one of the best tracks on another classic Stones album, Let It Bleed, and again when he recorded "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" and "Bitch" – both on Sticky Fingers – and he and fellow Texan horn player Bill Price joined their touring line-up.

The friendship blossomed when the Stones left the UK to get away from the punitive British tax regime set up residence on the French Riviera in April 1971. The saxophonist joined the guitarist at Nellcôte, a Belle Epoque mansion in Villefranche-sur-Mer, where they parked the Rolling Stones mobile studio and recorded in the basement of what had been the headquarters of the local Gestapo.

"Down in the basement it felt like America. Especially with Bobby Keys around," Richards told me in 2009. "Living on top of the factory had its benefits. 'Happy' epitomised that. One afternoon, Jimmy Miller [the producer] and Bobby Keys were there but that was about it. The guys don't usually start work until after dark and I said: 'Look, I've got this idea. Can we just lay it down for later?' Jimmy was on drums and Bobby on baritone sax. By the time the rest of the band arrived, I'd done a few overdubs and we had finished the track."

It became Richards' signature song along with "Tumbling Dice", another Keys-heavy number, and another highlight of Exile On Main St. Keys also played on 1973's Goats Head Soup and returned for Emotional Rescue in the late 1970s. But he struggled to kick a heroin habit, though he eventually did and returned to the Stones fold for their 1989 Steel Wheels comeback. He remained an advocate of soft drugs: "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."

A fellow mischief-maker happy to help Richards throw a television out of a hotel window in 1972 or to smuggle heroin on board a plane in 1973, Keys missed a show when he was otherwise engaged with a groupie and was sacked during their 1973 European tour. He eventually became a wiser member of their inner circle.

Born near Lubbock, in Texas, in 1943, where his father was serving in the Army Air Corps, Keys was attracted to the blues from an early age and would sneak away to listen Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf at a local club. He couldn't afford a guitar: "The only instrument, the absolute last instrument available, was an old baritone saxophone, which I had no idea how to even put my lips on."

Along with the pianist Billy Preston, Keys was the only musician to have recorded with the Stones and all four Beatles; he played on the best-selling 1970s solo albums All Things Must Pass by George Harrison, Ringo by Ringo Starr and Sometime In New York City, Walls And Bridges and Rock'n'Roll by John Lennon (the Lennon-McCartney 1974 jam is only a bootleg). His transcendent solo on Lennon's "Whatever Gets You Thru The Night" was another first take he was rightly proud of. He died of cirrhosis of the liver.


Robert Henry Keys, saxophonist: born Hurlwood, Texas 18 December 1943; married (one daughter, two sons, one stepson); died Franklin, Tennessee 2 December 2014.