The secret of any enduring art form – or any commercial enterprise, for that matter – is teamwork. Fashion that perhaps clichéd philosophy within a rock ’n’ roll context – in particular, the 50 year odyssey of The Rolling Stones – and you will find a band with pioneering, resourceful members but also a support team of expert players and producers. Aside from the great pianist Ian Stewart, who died in 1985, there was no more crucial sideman to the success of the Stones than tenor saxophonist Bobby Keys, who died yesterday at age 70.
Keys and the Stones were kindred spirits from different shores. Where the Stones were British ambassadors bred on American R&B, Keys was the real thing – a wildfire Texas sax ace who lived as uproariously as he played. The Stones would go on to record with a number of exemplary saxophonists over the decades. British vet Mel Collins was awarded the classic groove solo on Miss You. The legendary American jazz colossus Sonny Rollins played the poetic concluding solo on Waiting on a Friend. But the really filthy sax breaks that defined records made during the Stones’ golden era (1969-72) all belonged to Keys.
The psycho roots party breakdown distinguishing Rip This Joint? The boozy sing-a-long solo of Sweet Virginia? The simmering jam instigation during Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? The pressure cooker blast at the heart of Live With Me? Those were all diamond creations of Keys and integral components within the wonderfully debauched tenor of those songs.
And then there was Brown Sugar, a tune with such a perfectly crafted yet completely intuitive solo that it sounded like a composed segment of the song. Keys would play the solo note for note, tour after tour with the Stones until earlier this year when declining health forced the saxophonist to bow out of a series of Australian concerts by the band.
Keys’ dossier outside of the Stones was ridiculous. Among the giants he has played with: The Who, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Warren Zevon, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, John Hiatt, Donovan, Humble Pie and The Faces. But my favorite recording of Keys apart from the Stones remains a scalding concert record with fellow Texan Joe Ely called Live Chicago 1987 (which, perhaps fittingly, wasn’t released until 2009). Hearing Ely at his wildest with Keys ripping through Musta Notta Gotta Lotta, the epic Letter to L.A. and a roadhouse savvy Oh Boy (the classic by Buddy Holly, yet another Texas giant) is pure joy.
But for an immediate taste of Keys’ rock ‘n’ roll bravado, dig out the Stones’ still-extraordinary Exile on Main St. His playing smothers the band’s loosest, soul-marinated tunes like barbeque sauce – sauce smoked in Lone Star country, of course.