(photo: Sean Birmingham)
In a career spanning more than half a century, Bobby Keys emerged as a master of the art of rock n’ roll saxophone (though the self-effacing artist always denied any such thing). His reckless yet smooth tenor sax work on The Rolling Stones “Brown Sugar” is one of the most instantly recognizable instrumental lines in the history of rock.
Keys died Tuesday at his home in Franklin, Tennessee, at the age of 70.
His remarkable musical pedigree neither begins nor ends with The Stones. The list of artists who sought out Keys’ talents reads like a summary of rock history: Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, The Who, Eric Clapton, Graham Nash, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Warren Zevon, Sheryl Crow and three out of four Beatles—Harrison, Lennon and Starr. Nor were other genres unmoved by Keys, who recorded and toured with the likes of Joe Ely, Marvin Gaye, Dr. John, B.B. King and Leon Russell.
Born Robert Henry Keys in the tiny of town of Slayton, Texas, Keys grew up in West Texas among the same empty miles and open skies that gave rise to talents such as Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, Guy Clark, Tanya Tucker and, of course, his friend and musical associate Buddy Holly. By the age of 15, during the golden era of rock n’ roll, Keys was cutting his teeth playing road shows and high school gymnasiums throughout the southwest backing frontmen such as Holly and teen idol Bobby Vee.
Keys ultimately left West Texas because, he implied, his wild streak led local law enforcement to suggest he do so. He later became a session musician at the iconic R&B recording studio at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In 1964, Keys met The Rolling Stones at a San Antonio music festival. He bonded immediately with Keith Richards and, later, also grew close to Mick Jagger. For many years, Keys was a Rolling Stone in all but name and a nearly ubiquitous presence on their albums and tour lineups.
As both a session and touring musician, Keys found a lifelong demand for his tenor sax playing. His was not the measured, syncopated and almost mathematical saxophone of modern jazz. Rather, Keys wielded his instrument with a passion and wildness matching any lead guitarist. In the process, he delivered a sound and an emotional intensity that was, at its core, 100% rock n’ roll.
In the midst of a lifetime of backing others, Keys managed to find occasional time for his own projects. An eponymous 1970s solo album was re-released and re-mastered in 2012 on the Aurora label. He also penned an autobiography, Every Night’s a Saturday Night, chronicling an extraordinary life spent as one who was both behind-the-scenes and a scene-maker.
Times are hard for the horn section. Fifty years ago, saxophones, trumpets, even trombones were part of the heart and soul of any good rock or R&B combo. Nor were country and blues indifferent to their power (can you imagine Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” without the trumpets?). Today, horns survive in popular music primarily as a novelty, a way to lend the musical flavor of a particular culture or as a historical curiosity. But Keys has been there as a constant reminder that it doesn’t have to be that way.
Even as we mourn his passing, we should also embrace the musical legacy he leaves us— in “Brown Sugar” and a hundred other tracks—the proof that horns can be as rock, country, blues or R&B as we want or need them to be.
Bobby Keys “Honky Tonk”