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Bobby Keys, 70

December 18, 1943 – December 2, 2014

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Few kids first put their lips to a saxophone reed with dreams of playing in the world’s greatest rock and roll band. Fewer still actually get to live that fantasy. But then again, not many kids grow up with one of rock’s greatest legends practicing within earshot of their open bedroom windows. Bobby Keys did.

Keys was born in Slaton, a small town fifteen miles southeast of Lubbock surrounded by cotton fields and Santa Fe trains moving across the caprock. When he was little, he hung around studio sessions with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, fetching them Cokes and bobbing his head to the beat. He was also working on his own skills as a musician, learning to play the saxophone by ear.

At fifteen, Keys embarked on what would become his life as a road musician, leaving Lubbock County with Bobby Vee, a sixties pop star whose own music was inspired by Holly. A year later while playing San Antonio’s Teen Fair, Keys heard the familiar opening riffs of Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and rushed over to see who had the gall to cover his famous neighbor’s signature tune. It was the Rolling Stones playing their second ever American show. Listening closely to the “pasty-faced, funny-talking, skinny-legged” Englishmen, Keys decided that they were actually pretty good. Keys met the band and formed an instant connection with the rockers, particularly Keith Richards, who shared Keys’s love and respect for Holly’s music.

Five years later in 1969, Keys was at Elektra Studios in Los Angeles laying down sax tracks for the husband-wife music duo Delaney and Bonnie when rock-and-roll providence intervened. Mick Jagger saw Keys ambling down a studio hallway, recognizing him as the sax player from Texas, and asked him to take a stab at the Stones’ tune, “Live With Me.” In one take, the kid from Lubbock made himself an inseparable part of the sound of what is largely lauded as the golden period of the Rolling Stones.

Keys’ style of sax playing has been described as swampy, honking, grimy, howling, and soulful. On what is arguably his most famous contribution to music, the blistering solo on “Brown Sugar,” you can hear the notes almost tearing away from the song, the vibrato flittering wildly and powerfully, like a rag snagged on some barbed wire and billowing in the wind. Perhaps it was the lack of formal training—he never learned to read sheet music—that allowed for the imaginative, reckless style that became his musical hallmark. As Keys told the Austin Chronicle in 2006, “I just stick it in my face and blow.”

Whatever informed Keys’ unique styling, it made him a hot musical commodity for more than four decades. Besides playing on seminal Stones albums, Exile on Main Street, Sticky Fingers, and Let it Bleed, Keys contributed to records by Joe Cocker, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Carly Simon, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Humble Pie, Joe Ely, and solo efforts by every Beatle but McCartney. The stints when Keys was not recording or touring were short-lived.

Life as a touring musician suited Keys, whose raucous road stories are now as integral to his legacy as his sax playing. Keith Richards relates several wild tales in his memoir, Life, about the antics that he and Keys would get into, usually after a few rounds of Rusty Nails (scotch and Drambuie) and a cocktail of narcotics. There’s the time Keys and Richards started a fire at the Chicago Playboy mansion, the notorious bath of Dom Pérignon (filled to woo a beautiful French gal, of course), and the infamous footage of the two rock-stars giggling as they toss a TV set over a hotel balcony in Denver. “Television’s boring anyway,” Keys utters in an accent broad and flat as the prairies he grew up on. (Richards would be the first say Keys never let anyone forget he was from Texas.) 

Often sporting a pearlsnap shirt and cowboy boots, his name engraved on the shining curved opening of his sax, Keys gave the bands he played with a sense of authenticity. He continued to live and play like a rock-star right up to the time of his death on December 2 at his home in Nashville.

Richards offered this in memoriam of his longtime bandmate and friend to Rolling Stone: “[Bobby] told me, ‘I got a heart as big as Texas’ and I said, ‘Bobby, I think it’s a bit larger.’ He probably wouldn’t want us to be too solemn right now. Basically when it’s all said and done, I’m looking upon this now as a celebration of life rather than a memorial for his death.” – Christian Wallace

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