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Rhythm & Blues Saxophone: The Masters-Part 4: Bobby Keys

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

Bobby Keys played a very mean saxophone and left one heck of a legacy as a Rock and Roll saxophone player. An original and committed rock musician, he is best known for his work with seminal rock legends The Rolling Stones. His biography, Every Night’s A Saturday Night-The Legendary Rock ’n’ Roll Life Of Sax Man Bobby Keys (Counterpoint Publishing 2012) is an entertaining and easy to read book, a must read for students of the saxophone interested in learning more about the saxophones place in Rock history.

If you love the saxophone, and you love Rock and Roll, this book tells one fantastic tale—a journey that took Mr. Keys from his youth in Lubbock Texas, through several 1970’s recordings and tours with the Stones and many other rock luminaries such as John Lennon, Joe Cocker, Ringo Starr, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ron Wood, Eric Clapton, and Delaney and Bonnie. Bobby Keys lived to play the saxophone; he also lived to party. That should not be a surprise to anyone—Keys was best friends with Keith Richards, a man well known for his excessive Rock and Roll lifestyle.

The book reveals a lot about Mr. Keys approach to the saxophone. It explains how his main saxophone hero was originally King Curtis, another Texan known for his work as a bandleader for Aretha Franklin. King Curtis also blazed a trail as a studio musician; Keys followed that trail and added his own magic and style to the recording studio scene worldwide. Keys admits to not reading a note of music, and to developing his personal style more from harmonica players than jazz saxophone players or guitar players. Keys tends to stay away from any bebop or jazz inflected phrases as a general rule, and his solos are typically more rhythmically expressive as opposed to harmonically inventive. Keys also loved Hank Crawford and David “Fathead” Newman, so it’s obvious where his saxophone roots lie—mostly in the melting pot of Rhythm and Blues exemplified by Crawford and Fathead’s work in the Ray Charles Band.

There are some truly great chapters in this book, including Keys many trips to the United Kingdom, where he was involved in the recording of the Stones Exile On Main Street, and his eventual involvement in the Los Angeles recording studio scene in the 1970’s and 80’s. A particularly interesting part of the book is his description of the Los Angeles recording studio music scene of the 1970’s, and how many Texas and Oklahoma musicians migrated to that town looking for musical prosperity. He also discusses hanging out with John Lennon in detail in the UK, and mentions how he often showed up at famous recording studios with his horn and wormed his way, along with trumpeter Jim Price, onto many legendary recording sessions. Price and Keys were the horns for much of the Rolling Stones music of the 70’s, and they were featured on many recordings in addition to their Stones discography. Basing some of what they did on what they heard from the Memphis Horns, they became a sought after horn section and developed an original sound of their own. Keys credits Price, a more scholarly and learned musician, with a lot of the section arranging and horn voicings that gave them their unique style and sound.

There is a legendary tale of Keys, on tour with the Stones, filling a bathtub up with champagne, and sharing that bubbly with someone of the opposite sex, and then missing the next Stones gig. Rumors have circulated for years that this was how Keys got kicked out of the Rolling Stones. His version of the tale is in this book; those passages are well worth the price of the book alone.

After some digging around on the Internet I was able to purchase a copy of what appears to be his only solo recording, simply entitled Bobby Keys. It has been reissued on Wounded Bird Records. Some of the guest musicians on Bobby Keys include George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Dave Mason and Jack Bruce. This is a horn heavy, authentic Rock and Roll recording with some great saxophone work by Keys. The first tune is titled Steal From A King; the King Curtis influence is obvious. This recording is an important and rare CD, and should be a part of your collection if you are a rock saxophone lover.

Bobby got around and played with a whole lot of famous musicians in his career. He admits that he was often in the right place at just the right time, and that he was usually broke, and desperate for the next gig or session. Even though he received substantial royalties from some of the Stones recordings he somehow managed to spend more than he earned. I guess that came with the Rock and Roll territory!!

There are not many truly committed saxophone stylists to speak of in the pantheon of rock music. While Keys did come after King Curtis chronologically, he managed to define his own style and sound, and leave his mark on music history. This book provides a glimpse into the wild and crazy Rock and Roll lifestyle, an era that has mostly, and thankfully, passed. Bobby Keys was able to live that lifestyle with a saxophone in his hands, an amazing achievement, and we are lucky to have his recordings and legendary stories for posterity. What a true character and unique musician Mr. Keys was. Long live Rock and Roll, and long live Bobby Keys. You know what they say…..It’s only Rock and Roll, but I like it, like it, yes I do.

Thanks for stopping by my blog……Markos

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