Timing Is Everything
by Ron Wynn
Bobby Keys has mastered the art of the crackling, memorable sax solo in rock and R&B just as superbly as the great jazz musicians he idolizes. While best known for frenetic contributions to classic LPs by the Rolling Stones, the Who, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, and John Lennon (for starters), Keys has also appeared on albums by artists ranging from B.B. King and Dr. John to Donovan and Barbra Streisand. Yet, despite an impressive legacy that dates back to the ’50s and stints with Buddy Holly and Bobby Vee, Keys never wanted to be a saxophonist.
“I got hurt playing baseball and couldn’t play any contact sports,” Keys recalled. “In Texas, everybody wants to play football. The only thing left was to join the band. By the time I got there they had one instrument left. It was a beat-up baritone saxophone. I wanted a guitar, but my parents wouldn’t get me one. So I was stuck with that old sax.” But Keys quickly became a terror on the instrument, even if he deviated from the normal tunes bands of that era preferred. “I used to listen to the all-night radio stations, especially the ones that played all those great R&B songs,” Keys continued. “All the rock & roll and R&B records that I liked had sax solos. Little Richard, Fats Domino, that really resonated with me.”
Keys incorporated into his approach the big sound, huge tone, and vocal effects of premier R&B horn guys like Sam “The Man” Taylor, Plas Johnson, Hal “Cornbread” Singer, Earl Bostic, and most notably King Curtis, whom he met when Curtis was recruited to play on a Vee session. “They needed someone to pick him up, so I volunteered,” Keys added. “Of course, my band director and the guys weren’t real pleased when I told them I was blowing off a football game because I was picking up this black horn player and taking him around town. But I didn’t really care, because I was meeting my idol. I got to know him, and we later played together in New York. He showed me so many things and helped me develop my own style in the process.”
Keys’ skill at dispensing magic in a handful of carefully selected notes is evident on such Rolling Stones hits as “Brown Sugar” and “Live With Me.” He began recording with them in 1969 and remains close with both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger (he was an attendant at Jagger’s wedding).
Versatility is another important aspect of Keys’ popularity. While tenor is his first instrument, he’s nearly as famous for baritone contributions to such songs as Elvis Presley’s “Return To Sender” and John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night.” Keys retains a simple playing philosophy from the early days in Texas. “I’m not one of these technical wizards,” he admits. “I don’t go into a session with a lot of charts and try to dazzle or outplay anyone. I draw my inspiration from the people I’m playing with, and I don’t want to play the same thing all the time. I’m at my best when everyone’s contributing and engaged in the session. It’s always been about the feeling and energy I get when I’m playing, and being able to communicate that through the saxophone.”
Keys has played with so many different performers and bandleaders he’s hesitant to pick favorites. He’s formed friendships not only with Richards, Jagger, and Lennon, but Cocker, Ronnie Wood (whose Miami club he served as musical director during the late ’80s), Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton (he played on the immortal Derek and the Dominos sessions), and Paul McCartney. But one name he mentions might be surprising. “I really enjoyed playing with Harry Nilsson,” Keys recalled. “He was an excellent musician and a wonderful guy, a lot more talented than many people acknowledge.” He also has an interesting interlude regarding Streisand, whom he never met during the sessions for Barbra Joan Streisand. “She later thanked me for playing on her album,” Keys laughed. “She admitted she didn’t know who I was, but when I told her she was very gracious.”
A Nashville resident since the mid ’90s, Keys remains quite busy. He’ll soon head for New York to work with Richards on an upcoming solo project. He also recently released a book, Every Night’s A Saturday Night, something he says was supposed to happen years ago. “I was working with a writer and all they wanted was dirt on people and stories on everything but the music,” Keys said. “I just ended up giving the money back and saying let’s forget it. This time they let me concentrate on the music, although I was free to tell the truth about situations as I remembered them. This is not a ‘tell-all’ type of book. That’s not what I wanted to do and not something I ever would do.
“I still love to play,” Keys concluded. “There’s nothing better for me than to be part of a session where things are really jumping and it’s my turn to get in there and add something. That’s what keeps me going, the joy of playing music.”