Posted April, 2012
I’ve been a Rolling Stones fan since my teen years in the seventies. Tunes like Brown Sugar and Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ (along with many other Stones tunes) commanded my attention on so many levels – especially the sax solos.
Since those days, the sax figured prominently in other favorite Stones tunes like Miss You, the live version of Going To A Go-Go, to name a couple. Because of my appreciation of those solos, I became very aware of the man behind that sax: Bobby Keys
What I wasn’t aware of until recent years – and especially until I read Keys’ autobiography, Every Night’s A Saturday Night, was the long list of other rock and roll royalty and their iconic tunes that he’s played on. Musical monsters like B.B. King, Carly Simon, Delaney & Bonnie, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, John Lennon, Joe Cocker and many, many, many others. Saturday Night is a wonderful read and you can catch the Boomerocity review of it here. But it bears repeating that the tone and feel of the book is very conversational. You get the feeling that you’re chillin’ in Bobby’s TV room, shootin’ the breeze and listening to him share a ton of stories of his life in the business.
I recently called up Bobby at his Nashville area home. It was my first time to have the privilege of chatting with him. His warm, Texas/Southern drawl told me that he’s the kind of person that I can immediately connect with. He’s as country as cornbread and never meets a stranger – my kind of people.
As we got down to starting our chat, I asked Keys how he liked Nashville.
“Ah, man, I love the town! It’s just a rotten place for saxophone players – but I LOVE the town, I really do! I like the people that live here and I have a lot friends that live here. There’s just not a lot of sax biz that goes on here. That’s nothing personal against me. Ha! Ha!”
As we set the stage for what the chat would cover, I mentioned that I would not ask if his main gig, The Rolling Stones, were going to tour or not. I was startled that he gave me a comment about it anyway.
“Boy, I hope they do! I tell ya what, I really hope they do! I honestly don’t know. I found that it’s best for me not to speculate – especially publicly. Every time I think that they’re gonna jump left, they jump right. I just had one little brief line from Keith. He just said that he’ll let me know. That’s the extent of it. I’ve learned after all these years – you know, I’ve been playing with the band since, I don’t know, ’69 – forty-three years – and in that time I’ve learned that speculation about what those guys are gonna do is no way, really, to base your future on what you think they’re gonna do. I think there’s a good possibility of it, are my own thoughts on it. I hope so!”
We shifted our attention to Bobby’s book. Since the book is a tales-from-the-road kind of tome – sharing all sorts of funny stories, I asked him what the reaction has been to it.
“Well, so far, it’s been really good. I went to New York about ten days ago and did a gig there with my band and also did a lot of media – some radio, interviews and stuff. It’s all been really, really good! When I finished speaking into a microphone – I didn’t do I any writing – you always wonder, ‘Well, I wonder what is gonna come of this – how are people going to receive it?’
“It’s been very rewarding to me because I’ve had nobody come back at me – except one guy said that there wasn’t enough sex and drugs in it. The thing of it is is that scene has been pounded into the ground for years and years and years by everybody that’s ever written a book about the Rolling Stones. But most of them knew very little about the Rolling Stones. The thing that I like about the Stones is playin’ with them! I love their music and that’s what I wanted to talk more about in the book than anything else was the music.”
When I commented about all the people he’s worked with over the years such as Buddy Holly, Bonnie Bramlett and a whole bunch of others, I told him that he struck me as the friggin’ Forrest Gump of rock and roll. He cackled out laughing and said, “Now there’s a hell of an analogy! That’s funnier ‘n hell!” Then, obviously turning to his wife who was in the room with him, he said, “He just called me the Forrest Gump of rock and roll! Ha! Ha! Ha!”
After having a good laugh, I asked Forrest – er – Bobby who hasn’t he worked with that either he wishes he had before they passed away or, if they’re still alive, want to work with?
“Well, you know, that’s a very good question. I’d like to work with Stevie Wonder – LOVE his music, you know? I’d love to work with more of the Motown acts, too. But, you know, I’m really pretty happy with what’s happened and what’s happened has really been kinda the left hand of God puttin’ me through a lot of this stuff. I never really planned out any master scheme to achieve what I’ve achieved. I’ve just been in the right place at the right time with a saxophone and was able to do pretty much what needed to be done. It’s just the feel of the music and the way rock and roll had an impact on me.
“When I heard Buddy Holly playing that guitar on the back of that flatbed wagon and Joe B. up there playin’ bass and J.I. playin’ drums, man! That had an impact on me. I fell into the saxophone by accident. It didn’t start out that way. I got hurt playing baseball and I couldn’t play football so I went into the band and all that jazz. Somebody else has been pullin’ the strings – I’ve just been dancin’! Ha! Ha!”
Since I’m real partial to the great Bonnie Bramlett, I was stunned to read in Saturday Night that she was one of those originally considered for the female solo on Gimme Shelter. I told Keys that I would have spent his last tour check to have heard her sing that – not that Merry Clayton was any slouch on her solo, of course. That revelation prompted to ask, Bobby if, from where he sits, there any one thing that he feels should have been done majorly different on a Stones song and, if it had, would’ve changed rock history as we know it?
“Huh! Well, I’ve never considered it but, personally, I’ve agreed pretty much what the Stones have done – at least during the times I’ve been recording with them and the tracks that I’ve played on - and, of course, with Jim Price. He was a big part of that, too! But, as for the Stones, one of the things I’ve always tried to get them to do is I’ve always wanted them to do an instrumental and put it on one of their albums. It was never seriously considered. I seriously considered it but the minute it got it out of my mouth the laughter didn’t die down for about two hours!
“But, nah, I don’t think there’s anything that I would go back and change, particularly. But I tell ya, the way I play, I play a lot off of the other musicians. I listen to other elements – what the guitar is doing rhythmically. I’ll play along with that. I’ll pick something out of that strata or that level. I’m very much a rhythmic saxophone player so playing with the Rolling Stones is really fun for me!”
Keys says in his book that he always viewed Keith Richards as a kindred spirit – that, if he wasn’t born in England, he would’ve had to be a Texan. I asked him to expound on that just a bit. He was laughing his genuine, infectious laugh as he said, “Well, I had him made an honorary Texan. I had the Texas flag flown over the Alamo on the day of his and mine birthday (they both have the same birth day). I knew some people in Texas who were associated with the Texas Historical Society so I had them fly the Texas flag over the Alamo on December the 18th, got it documented and sent it to Keith, hoping it would finally induce him to take into consideration about coming down to Dallas and joining the team! Ha! Ha!”
This is a guy, man, that goes out of his way to save the life of a little stray dawg in Russia. Keith is portrayed as a dark person, more or less and he’s anything but that! He’s one of the funniest sumbitches I’ve ever known in my life, man! Since we were on the subject of Keef, I asked Bobby what the least understood thing is about the Stones guitarist. Without even a nanosecond of hesitation Bobby said, “His temperament.
“Some people look at him as having his blood changed at some Transylvanian medieval castle, you know? Those people are not going to believe anything I say. I mean, I’ve met people in bars in hotels we’ve stayed and they’ll go, ‘How about that Keith Richards thang? Were you with him when he had his blood changed?’ and I’d go, “No, man, the guy didn’t have his blood changed!’ They’d say, ‘Ah, man, you can’t say anything about it, huh?’ It doesn’t make any difference how many times I say somethin’ ain’t right, they ain’t gonna believe me anyway. But the guys a sweetheart and chicks dig him for some reason! They really like him - chicks and critters! Ha! Ha!”A Boomerocity reader wondered how it worked out that Keith just let Bobby write his own side of the stories in Keith’s book - like maybe, Keith, "Hey Bobby, man I don't remember any of that, here why don't you write the story?" Here’s Keys’ take on how that all happened.
“He’s got a hideaway sort of place down in Turks and Caicos Islands and the writer, James Fox, was going down there to talk to Keith. I was asked to go down there. I spent five days down there. Keith would be in the same room. I’m not bashful, man. James Fox just asked me questions and I gave him answers. Keith didn’t say anything like, ‘No, I’d rather you not say this. Maybe not touch on that.’ He didn’t say anything about what I said. He said, ‘Just talk to James Fox and tell him whatever he wants to know.’ And that’s exactly what I did! I answered James Fox’s questions and we spent a lot of time talking over a period of a couple of days.
“But it’s easy to talk about Keith. He’s a pretty memorable fella! I’ve been around him sometimes when it got very memorable but the thing I remember about him and the most important thing is that he’s the most honest sumbitch and the best damn guitar player. I love playing music with Keith! He’s just got a feel for it that I can really relate to.”
Success and failure are often determined by the opportunities grabbed or passed on and Bobby has certainly jumped at lots of great opportunities that have brought him to where he is today. Is there a particular song or album that he had a chance to work on and, for whatever reason, didn’t or couldn’t and now looks back and says, “Crap!”
“Well, shoot! Let’s see. Well, of course, during the recording of Exile on Main Street, George Harrison did his Concert for Bangladesh gig. Jim Price and I had played on the All Things Must Pass album from which he (Harrison) took most of the material to play at that concert. Anyway, he invited Jim and I to go play at the concert. I thought it was for a real good cause and I wanted to go do it and Jim wanted to go do it but we had already obligated ourselves to work there in the South of France. I would’ve always liked to have been there for that. It’s not like a great big, huge hole in my life because I wasn’t. I was having a pretty good time down in the South of France.
“Also, not that it ever would’ve happened, I would’ve liked to have played some live stuff with John Lennon. I really loved him - and Harry Nilsson! I tried and tried and tried to get Harry to do a live gig but he was dead-set against it. He never did do a live gig. He did one video.”
Bringing a little levity to the conversation (as if we needed any more), I interjected that, according to his book, he did manage to provide a frog sound on one of Yoko Ono’s albums to which he chuckled, “Oh, yeah, man, that was indeed a red letter day! There, again, man, some hand of Providence touched me there because I had no idea what I was gonna do. I was looking at John like, ‘Hey, man, give me some feedback here, son! Help me!’ He just looked at me and rolled his eyes like, ‘You got this one all by yourself, Bobby!’
During my recent interview with Keys’ fellow Stones band mate, Chuck Leavell, I told him that I was working on an interview with Keys. He had this to say about Bobby and his book: “Bobby is a great friend of mine. We are ‘Southern Brothers’ - he from Texas and me from Alabama. We talk a lot about both on tour and off. I'm so glad he is getting his story out there. It is a remarkable story. He has played with so many icons . . . John Lennon, Bonnie and Delaney, The Stones, the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and so much more. He has so many great experiences to tell about. I can't wait to get my copy!”
At the time of my chat with Keys, I hadn’t yet these comments with him. However, I asked him what his thoughts were of the Stones keyboardist.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve got lots of good thoughts about Chuck! One thing is he’s a brother from the south! So, we’re both brothers of the Confederacy. Heh! Heh! I believe that the earth is a southern planet! Ha! Ha!
“Before I met Chuck I knew his name and was aware of his work, man! He stepped into some pretty big shoes and just by virtue of the fact that was, more or less, recommended by Ian Stewart – whose opinion really resonates with all the members of the Stones, I can tell you that – or it did before Stu died. Chuck stepped into a situation, man, where he had a lot of bases to cover that hadn’t been covered before. All of a sudden he was actually the musical director on the stage. He was the one that was in charge of going in and making sure that the songs were the correct tempo and that everybody started and ended at the same place which, generally, didn’t take a whole lot. But he brought together a lot of people. It’s a big band. I think there’s 13 or 14 of us counting the singers and horn players. Chuck has to walk a pretty tight line, sometimes, between the camps of Keith and Mick. He’s very much a southern diplomat to be able to do that because many have tried and few were successful.”
With a well received book now under his belt and waiting to hear if the bad boys of rock and roll are going to tour, I asked Bobby if he was going to come out with a solo CD.
“Yeah, well, actually, the guys I play with here in town – we call ourselves The Suffering Bastards – we’ve been into the studio. We’ve got four tracks that we’ve recorded and we’re probably going to be doing some more future gigs we’ll be having a CD available pretty soon online and at the gigs we play.”
And when Keys boards that great tour plane to heaven, what does he hope his legacy will be and how does he want to be remembered?
“A guy who loved rock n’ roll music.”
It’s Bobby Keys’ love of rock and roll music that has allowed him to be a lively part of the soundtrack of our youth that continues to play to this very day. Somehow, I have this sneakin’ hunch – I just know it in my knower – that Bobby is going to be on many more great rock tunes to come.