Sax & Drugs & Rock & Roll

Slaton native Bobby Keys’s wild ride with—and without—the Rolling Stones.
bobby keys
Estate of Keith Morris/Redferns

San Antonio, June 1964. The pasty-faced guys from England waiting in the wings were getting a big kick out of singer Bobby Vee’s saxophonist, whose only pair of black suit pants had ripped right before showtime. The big guy with the Texas accent was quite the sight onstage in his Bermuda shorts and cowboy boots.

To the members of the Rolling Stones, Slaton native Bobby Keys was a larger-than-life character, the true Texan they’d hoped to meet when they played the Teen Fair at San Antonio’s Freeman Coliseum, their second-ever show in the United States. They couldnt have been less alike, the gregarious horn player from Lubbock County and the British Invasion group from London. But they had Buddy Holly in common. As a boy, Keys had run errands for Holly and later sat in on sax with Holly’s band. The Stones’ current single was a cover of Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” and they wanted to know everything about their late hero. That night at the Ramada Inn, where Keys and the Stones had adjoining rooms, they talked well into the morning.

“I didn’t tell him that night, but Keith [Richards] reminded me of Buddy,” said Keys in late September, sitting backstage at Lubbock’s Cactus Theater, where he was playing a gig with Joe Ely. “Keith had a look in his eyes of such determination, like he had no doubt that he was going to be a star. Buddy had that same look.”

The West Texan and the Brits moved in different circles for a while but met again five years later in Los Angeles, when a chance encounter with Mick Jagger in a studio hallway led to Keys’s adding his trademark honking, squealing sax to “Live With Me,” a track from Let It Bleed. He’s been arguably the Stones’ most popular sideman ever since, and as the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this winter, he’ll be up there with his sax, joining the band for four big-ticket shows in London and Newark. 

“It’s a very well-paying gig, and they give me free clothes,” laughed Keys, 68, who stays sharp fronting a bar band in Nashville, where he’s lived for twenty years. “Plus I know all the songs.”

At this point, the Stones could hire anyone to play sax and still sell out of high-price tickets in minutes, as they already have for the anniversary shows. But Keys is the saxophonist who makes the Rolling Stones sound like the Rolling Stones. Since that first U.S. tour, the band has played everything from hard rock to disco and pioneered the collision of sex and drugs and private jets that defines the rock star lifestyle. Through all of that, only a few things have kept them connected to the American roots music that first inspired them. One of those things is Keys, whose sound is grounded in the work of Texas tenor players like Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, King Curtis, and David “Fathead” Newman. It’s no accident that his greatest contributions to the Stones’ sound came on Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main St., albums that marked the band’s late-sixties/early-seventies creative peak. 

Keys’s most famous solo, on the deathless radio staple “Brown Sugar,” came about after he jammed with the band on the tune during a birthday bash for himself and Richards at London’s Olympic Studios on December 18, 1970. The song had already been recorded with a Mick Taylor guitar solo, but after Keys thrilled the partygoers with his skronks and trills, he was asked

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