FAMOUSLY BORN ON THE SAME day as Keith Richards – December 18, 1943 – Bobby Keys was a man whose outlaw spirit and lust for life informed his playing during a career that spanned over 40 years at the heart of rock’n’roll. His association with The Rolling Stones (he's pictured above, left with the band) began in 1969 by chance when, having just toured the UK with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, he found himself at Olympic Studios in West London. There, according to Keys himself, producer Jimmy Miller invited him to play on a track that The Stones were finishing for their Let It Bleed album. Live With Me was the track in question, Keys’ tenor sax creeping in at 1.27 before roaring on to emphasise the track’s stomping, carnal invitation, and returning as the track ends.
By 1969, aged 26, Keys was already a music veteran, touring with Dick Clark’s Caravan Of Stars, blagging his way on to the session for Dion’s 1961 hit, The Wanderer, and having played with Buddy Holly as a teenager. Indeed, he’d admonished The Stones when he first met them back in ’64 for their cover of Holly’s Not Fade Away before forming a lasting friendship with the band and becoming Keith Richards’ partner in crime – sometimes literally (evidence, below).
His propensity for mischief was underlined by the title of his 2012 autobiography, Every Night’s A Saturday Night, but his reputation was forged through his remarkable soulful playing, which animated a number of classic tracks across Stones albums including Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main St. and Goats Head Soup.
If his wailing, first-take solo on Brown Sugar is his crowning moment, then his sly, controlled presence on the title track of 1980’s Emotional Rescue demonstrates the finesse in his playing. And outside of the Stones there were major contributions to albums by Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Graham Nash, Faces and Humble Pie – UK artists who turned to the big Texan for a dash of authentic Southern grease.
Along with his trumpet-playing cohort Jim Price, Keys' value to British soul-seekers is exemplified by Joe Cocker’s 1971 movie, Mad Dogs And Englishmen, where Keys, Cocker, Leon Russell and co freewheel their way around the States, and the accompanying album’s barrage of extended covers seethe with a similar spirit.
Keys also appeared on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1972 album, Somewhere In New York City, under the nickname ‘Robbie Knees’. His association with Lennon (which naturally took in his fabled ‘Lost Weekend’) saw him chip in on 1974’s Whatever Gets You Through The Night. The opening sax phrase of the former Beatle’s first US Number 1 single is pure Keys.
His relationship with assorted ex-Beatles continued when he played on the last sessions involving Paul McCartney and Lennon in ’74. Following the release of his only solo album, 1972’s self-titled effort on Warner Brothers, he signed to Ringo Starr’s label, Ring O’Records, recording the funky Gimmie The Key single in 1975.
Always a man in search of a good time, Keys’ life was tumultuous and, at times, excessive but he continued to tour with The Stones until very recently when ill health intervened. He passed away on December 2, 2014, reportedly of cirrhosis at his home in Tennessee.
The Stones issued a short statement via their web site in tribute: “The Rolling Stones are devastated by the loss of their very dear friend and legendary saxophone player, Bobby Keys. Bobby made a unique musical contribution to the band since the 1960s. He will be greatly missed.”
Keith Richards, meanwhile, issued a hand-written statement, expressing his sadness at the passing of “the largest pal in the world”.
PHOTO: Getty Images.