Rock's Most Famous Saxophone

Bobby Keys of the Rolling Stones

Rock's Most Famous Saxophone
| published December 3, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

With the arguable exception of a few Bruce Springsteen tunes with those rich, invasive horns of Clarence Clemons, his was the most famous and well-known saxophone performances in rock and roll history. “Brown Sugar” was recorded in a little brick and mortar studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the first few days of December, 1969—almost 45 years ago to the day.

Written by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, and intended to be one of the premier cuts on their forthcoming Sticky Fingers album, the song—once released—became an instant guitar classic, and one of the rawest and most infectious rock songs recorded. In fact, Rolling Stone magazine ranks “Brown Sugar” at number five on its all-important list of the 100 greatest guitar tunes of the rock and roll era.

But it was that saxophone that added the potent layers of energy to an already intense song, and the man behind that sax—unlike his Stones’ colleagues from the British Isles—was born in Texas and lived much of his life (when he was not touring or recording with the Rolling Stones) in Tennessee. Bobby Keys, who became an integral part of the Stones’ music machine for decades, died this week at the age of 70.

Keys spent almost his entire life—from age 14 until the day he died—performing on stage or in studios.

Rock and rollers shouldn’t die, we think to ourselves, because that means that something “youthful” is dying along with them. But Bobby Keys advanced age was a reminder to us that rock and roll is now generations old, and that its earliest practitioners and savants are older even than the traditional Baby Boom. Keys, like many of rock music’s greatest stars (all members of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Deep Purple), was born long before the Boom. He performed alongside rock’s earliest pioneers…Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Bobby Vee, and Elvis Presley. Later, his energetic proficiency with the sax led him to record and perform with Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, George Harrison, John Lennon, and Joe Cocker. By the time of his death, he had spent more than 56 years on the road as a performer.

His saxophone sounds can be heard in John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” and Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright.” By some estimates, he recorded or performed with as many as 300 different musicians or bands in his lifetime.

But it was his famous association with the Rolling Stones—England’s baddest of the bad boys at the time—that became the most enduring part of his legacy. Keys was born, interestingly enough, on the exact same day in 1943 as Keith Richards—December 18. Richards and Keys bonded almost immediately when they met for the first time in the late 1960s. Keys was added, along with a few other musicians and back-up singers, to round out the musical sound that the Stones had more-or-less perfected by the time they arrived in Muscle Shoals to record several new songs. Keys remained with the entourage for decades, recording with them in the studio, touring with them on many occasions, and becoming a semi-permanent member of the second-tier of Stones musicians onstage. When the time came in live shows for songs like “Can You Hear me Knocking?” and “Sweet Virginia,” Keys would often step forward to share the lights with Jagger, Richards, Ronnie Wood and others. And when it came time for the high-energy, guitar-laden “Brown Sugar,” most rock fans agree than without Keys on sax, the song was never quite the same.

The Stones musical thumbprint was somewhat out-of-the-box for rock bands of that time. Where most of the major bands enabled the drummer (logically) to set the pace and rhythm, with the other instruments settling in once the tone was set, the Stones used Keith Richards’ intensely rhythmic guitar hooks to establish tempo, with the drummer Charlie Watts entering the fray afterwards—often by a beat, or by merely a fraction of a second. “Brown Sugar” remains the textbook example of this style, and Keys’ intense saxophone interlude in the last third of the song binds both the mood and the energy of a tune which became one of the Stones’ biggest hits.

Keys had been sick for some time, according to sources close to his family and those who worked with him, though he was still touring with the band earlier this year. A spokesman for the Rolling Stones said that the group was “devastated by the loss of their very dear friend and legendary saxophone player.”

Bobby made a unique musical contribution to the band since the 1960s,” the press statement said, “and he will be greatly missed.”

Related Thursday Review articles:

Muscle Shoals: Musical Ground Zero; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; July 10, 2014.

Keeping Those Lighters Aloft: Lynyrd Skynyrd 40 Years After “Pronounced”; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; September 9, 2013.