Expert Q&A

Q&A with legendary Rolling Stones sax man Bobby Keys


Until recently, the Texas-born saxophonist followed an established pattern with his money: ‘When I get it, I spend it.’

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Legendary Rolling Stones sax man Bobby Keys has been blowing our speakers off for more than half a century on a dozen Stones albums and tours, as well as chart-topping hits by classic rock royalty, including John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton.

And that’s just the second half of his resume. As a teen, Keys toured with neighbor Buddy Holly’s Crickets, wailed on Dion’s “The Wanderer” and adding his rawboned Stax-by-Southwest Texas funk to the late Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars.

In his new memoir, “Every Night’s a Saturday Night,” Keys shares what he can remember of those notorious Stones tours, clubbing the night away with flat mate Mick Jagger, surviving the high life with best buddy Keith Richards and ultimately landing in Nashville, where this Stone comes to recharge between deployments.

Bobby Keys, legendary
Rolling Stones sax man
Q&A with legendary Rolling Stones sax man Bobby Keys
Photo credit: Dominique Tarle

Every night's a Saturday night

Saxophonist Bobby Keys’ book, “Every Night’s a Saturday Night,” chronicles his coming of age just at the same time as a new form of music, rock ‘n’ roll. A musical career that started in the ’50s with a kind of internship with Buddy Holly and the Crickets has advanced to include many of the greatest names in the genre.

We caught up with Keys amid rumors that the Stones are planning an album and world tour in 2013 to commemorate the band’s 50th anniversary. Let’s start with the obvious: Are you gearing up for this business that the Stones are doing next?

Keys: Well, see now, that’s a trick question! Now do you know any business they’re doing next? Just rumors.

Keys: That’s all I know, too. (laughs) And I have learned many, many, many, many years ago that it doesn’t do any good to ask anybody. Keith told me a long time ago, and this is what we still go by: “Hey, man, when it’s time, I’ll give you a call.” I mean, we talk between those times, but when it’s time, he’ll say, “Pack up your sax and meet me in…” Toronto or London or wherever the hell it is we’re going to go to rehearse. I don’t know when that next time will be, but I have a strong feeling there will be a next time. You didn’t start out as a horn player.

Bobby Keys: No, man. I was nothin’. I wanted to play the guitar. The only instrument I ever had was a harmonica that my grandfather gave me for my birthday and it only came with two pieces of music: “Auld Lang Syne” and “Red River Valley.” The first instrument I could get my hands on was an old baritone sax provided by my high school my freshman year. Then came that racket down the street in Lubbock.

Keys: My life really changed one morning. I was in bed and I heard this music coming from outside my house somewhere. I ran out on the front porch in my underwear and climbed up in our weeping willow tree in the front yard and watched these guys play music on a flatbed truck for the opening of a gas station. It was the first time I’d ever heard an electric guitar and drums and bass, right there in my neighborhood just 100 feet away, and it was Buddy Holly and some other guys. I lived in Slaton, Texas, and he lived in the next town up, in Lubbock, across the street from my grandmother’s sister, and we used to go up on weekends and help her cater parties for these women’s clubs. I got to know J.I. (Allison) and Joe B. (Mauldin), the drummer and bass player in the Crickets, really well. My grandfather gave me away to J.I., and I went on the road and never went back. Gave you away?

Keys: Yeah. J.I., who was married to Peggy Sue (who inspired Holly’s hit single), had to come down to Slaton to talk to my grandfather about letting me go on the road. I was too young to sign a contract so my grandfather signed over guardianship to J.I., and I got in the station wagon and off we went. Were you getting paid then?

Keys: Hell yeah! I was getting paid $125 a week! It was big-time rock ‘n’ roll.

Keys in concert with The Rolling Stones. Click image to enlarge.
Photo credit: Jane Rose What did you do with the money?

Keys: Well, I spent it! I established a pattern back then that has existed until somewhat recently: When I get it, I spend it. You were quite a bit younger than the rest of the Crickets.

Keys: They were a lot older than me. That’s why I got to do all the dirty work: unload and load the trailer, take the car down to be serviced, take the laundry down to have it cleaned. All that really glamorous showbiz stuff. I was more the roadie than I was the saxophone player. You first tasted fame as part of the late-sixties ensemble, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. What was that like?

Keys: Musically, being part of a band opened up a different door. I learned a hell of a lot at that time and met some very good people, friends I still have today like (horn player) Jim Price and (drummer) Jim Keltner. J.J. Cale was playing guitar and Carl Radle was playing bass. I was so disappointed when we didn’t just become the darlings of the universe! I was all ready to order a Ferrari. Was that your first introduction to a horn section?

Keys: Yeah, with Jim Price. Up until then, I’d been primarily just the only horn player in whatever band that was. I played rhythm saxophone. I actually took a suggestion from this guy I was friends with who was playing drums, Levon Helm (of The Band, who died April 19). We were sharing an apartment in L.A. Levon had a great blues 45 collection, particularly harmonica players, and he said I ought to listen to these harp players like Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson and maybe take over a role in that vein rather than trying to play what was more or less traditional saxophone at the time. Because one horn a section don’t make. So your grandfather’s gift finally came in handy.

Keys: Motown and R&B records had some saxophone on them but not much in rock and roll at the time. I learned a lot playing with Jim and we played not only with Delaney & Bonnie but with Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen. How did you survive between tours?

Keys: After Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Price and I went to London to be a part of Eric Clapton’s band but it didn’t work out. By the time we got there, Eric had passed us off to George Harrison, who was doing his “All Things Must Pass” album in the studio. George knew us because he’d done a sit-in gig with us on the Delaney & Bonnie and Eric Clapton tour of Europe. So for the next couple of weeks, we were playing on “All Things Must Pass,” and as soon as we finished that, I ran into (Mick) Jagger at a club in London, and they were just starting to work on an album called “Sticky Fingers.”  I just kinda went from one place to the next; it wasn’t really planned that way. How did you pay for stuff? Did you have a credit card?

Keys: No, I made money and then I spent it, and then I made more money and then I spent that. It’s the same process that goes on today. It was all cash. Jim and I got to a point where we had more sessions than we could fill, and I said, “Look, man, let’s just charge 20 times what the union scale is and that will weed out the posers from the players.” But what happened is, we started charging more money than anybody had ever heard of in Europe and we got more work than we could deal with because people were thinking, “Well hell, if these guys are going to charge thousands of dollars for one session, they must really be good!” Would you have been content to be a session player?

Says Keys of Rolling Stone Keith Richards, “Keith and I just have a pretty good understanding of each other.”
Click image to enlarge.
Photo credit: Mikio Ariga

Keys: Not really, because I don’t read music. If you’re going to be a session guy, that’s pretty much a prerequisite; you’ve got to read it, understand it, write it. I understand the concept, but I just never really had the urge to learn it. If I could hear something, I could play it. Your horn work helped propel one of the best rock albums of all time, the Stones’ “Exile on Main Street.” What do you recall about those notorious sessions in the south of France?

Keys: What’s funny to me is, when that record first came out, the critics slammed me and Jim Price. They called us everything: a wannabe, second-rate, washed out version of the Memphis Horns and all that. They also said the album wasn’t worth a damn. Of course now it’s one of their benchmark works. You’re normally considered best buds with Keith Richards. Was it that way from the start?

Keys: At the very beginning when I was living over at Jagger’s house in Chelsea, he and I got along great. I really enjoyed his company; we used to play chess a lot, drink wine, go to museums and go to play cricket, which I was never really a fan of. Mick and I palled around for a bit and I was part of his wedding ceremony to Bianca in San Tropez. But Keith … I guess maybe it had something to do with Keith actually plays guitar. So he and I would sit around and jam more so than Mick and I would. I don’t know; Keith and I just have a pretty good understanding of each other. We get along really well. (laughs) Sometimes. Among other things, you share the same birthday, and at the time you both were heavily involved in drugs.

Keys: There was a lot of s— around at that time. It could easily have been a tragic period we’d be talking about, but the fact is that everybody came out alive and some damn good music came out of it. It didn’t justify everybody’s lifestyle, but that’s the way it was. You also backed John Lennon at that time, most memorably on the Lennon-Elton John collaboration, “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.”

Keys: Yeah, I did some albums with John and some albums with (Lennon running mate) Harry Nilsson in Los Angeles. I first met Harry in London and we were very, very close friends and had a lot of fun together. He’s the godfather of my son, Huckleberry. Does one artist you’ve worked with stand out in your mind?

Keys: That’s an impossible question to answer with just one person. I can’t say John Lennon without saying Keith Richards without saying Marvin Gaye and so many other people. But one person who stands out is maybe B.B. King, who asked Jim Price and me to play on his In London” album. When you get into the studio, there are some folks who, because of your respect for them and their enormous talent, make you pull yourself up to another level, and B.B. is among those. I like to play music that’s really heartfelt by the people who are recording and making it. How does it feel to even be considering a Rolling Stones 50th anniversary tour?

Keys: Hell, I thought 1976 was the last tour this band would ever go on! Now that we’re still talking about touring and it’s 2012, that’s amazing to me. But there are an awful lot of key ingredients that are in the mix that would certainly make you think it’s going to happen. I’m ready to go tomorrow. It better damn well happen soon while everybody’s still above ground!

See related:Q&A with hop-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons

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