LOS ANGELES — Bobby Keys, whose swampy saxophone was as key a component of the peak-period Rolling Stones as Clarence Clemons’ sax was for the E Street Band, has died at age 70, in Middle Tennessee. Multiple news reports cited cirrhosis as the cause of death.
The Slaton, Texas, native, who made his Stones recording debut with “Live With Me” on the epochal 1969 album “Let It Bleed,” with his tasty reeds providing that track’s primary solo, also played with Eric Clapton, John Lennon, George Harrison, Joe Cocker, B.B. King and Lynard Skynyrd, among many others during a career that lasted more than five decades.
But it was his work with the Stones, particularly on the albums “Sticky Fingers” — on which his down-and-dirty solos for “Brown Sugar” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” provided a muscular counterpoint to the twin guitars of Keith Richards and Mick Taylor — and the double LP “Exile on Main Street,” with Keys’ fingerprints prevalent throughout, that established the Texas native as a key session musician during the ’70s and beyond.
He would act as an unofficial member of the group, one of the players Richards referred to as “supersidemen” — not unlike the keyboardists Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart — during the group’s halcyon days of 1969-74, and again beginning in 1980, continuing to record and tour with the group right up until their appearance at Glastonbury in 2013, and this past year during the Stones’ 14 On Fire tour, until health issues sidelined him.
“The Rolling Stones are devastated by the loss of their very dear friend and legendary saxophone player, Bobby Keys…” the band said on Twitter. “Bobby made a unique musical contribution to the band since the 1960’s. He will be greatly missed.”
Keith Richards also paid tribute to Keys on the Rolling Stones’ Facebook page. “I have lost the largest pal in the world and I can’t express the sense of sadness I feel although Bobby would tell me to cheer up,” the post reads. “My condolences to all that knew him and his love of music.”
While Keys was introduced to the Stones by producer Jimmy Miller, it was Richards, with whom he shared the exact same birthday (Dec. 18, 1943), who became a kind of soulmate. Richards recalled in his autobiography “Life” that the group hooked up with Keys in 1969 at Elektra studios when Keys was recording with Delaney & Bonnie. “Jimmy Miller was working there on ‘Let It Bleed’ and called Bobby in to play a solo on ‘Live With Me.’ The track was just raw, straight-ahead, balls-to-the-wall rock and roll, tailor made for Bobby. A long collaboration was born.”
With trumpeter Jim Price, Keys would form a prominent horn section with the group.
Keys was part of the six Rolling Stones tours that visited Las Vegas between 1994 and last year, including 14 concerts at the MGM Grand Garden arena and a 2002 date at the Hard Rock Hotel.
A notorious party animal, Keys would act as an enabler to Richards, with whom he kept pace, and was part of Lennon’s extended “lost weekend” in the mid-’70s. He would end up on the Lennon albums “Walls and Bridges,” “Some Time in New York City” and “Rock ‘n Roll.”
He told Rolling Stone magazine in 2012: “I’ve been smoking pot for over 50 years, and I never let a day go by unless I’m in jail. I am a devout pothead. I have been, will be, don’t see a damn thing wrong with it except the cost. Legalize it.”
A prodigy as a teenager, Keys started touring with Bobby Vee at age 15, and played briefly with Buddy Holly, but never learned to read music. “I listen subliminally,” he told Rolling Stone. “I play more rhythmically than I do a lot of notes. I pull a lot of the stuff that I play off the rhythm tracks – and Keith Richards has been one of the main contributors to my inspirational playing.”
Other key recordings on which the saxophonist took part were Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass,” Ringo Starr’s “Ringo” and “Goodnight Vienna,” Clapton’s “Eric Clapton,” Carly Simon’s “No Secrets” and “Hotcakes,” and Harry Nilsson’s “Nilsson Schmilsson.”