It’s no stretch to say that the name Bobby Keys is known to a much bigger chunk of the Western world than it was just two years ago. For most of his 69 years (including some 50 years in the music biz), music nerds knew Keys as the Texas-bred buddy of Buddy Holly, and sax-wielding sideman for everyone from John Lennon to Marvin Gaye, and in particular the Rolling Stones. That all changed, however, with the publication of Keith Richards’s biography, Life, in 2010. Calling Keys one of his best friends, Richards devoted page after page to the saxman, recounting all kinds of exploits that they shared on tour together.
Increased name recognition aside, however, Keys swears that Keith’s book hasn’t changed his life much. “The only way my life has changed is that I stopped drinking,” Keys told us last week by phone from Austin, where he was playing with Joe Ely.
And yet… and yet…. since the publication of Life, he’s managed to release his own biography, Every Night’s a Saturday Night, and hit the road with his own band, the Sufferin’ Bastards, who are finishing up a short tour this week. The lineup has been in rotation, but right now they include drummer Steve Gorman of Black Crowes fame, guitarist Dan Baird from the Georgia Satellites, bassist Robert Kearns from Lynyrd Skynyrd, keyboardist Michael Webb, who’s played with John Fogerty and Poco, and guitarist Chark Kinsolving, whom Keys credits with helping him form the band.
“Everybody in the band lives in Nashville and I was lamenting the fact that there were no places to play for a sax player,” he said, which led Kinsolving to start rounding up the band members, many of whom were on hiatus from their main gigs.
A far easier decision, he says, was determining what to play: “We started out primarily doing stuff that I was involved with. Stones, Joe Cocker and other hit records that I’ve played on. John Lennon. We play what we know. And I primarily know Rolling Stones songs.”
Be that as it may, his recent set lists have included not just Stones war horses like “Bitch,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” and “Brown Sugar,” but Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” King Curtis’s “Soul Serenade” and the soul standard “The Letter.”
Whatever he chooses for that night’s set, it’s surely a window into an unlikely career that’s seen him pop up like a rock and roll Where’s Waldo at seminal moment after seminal moment in the history of music. He was born just south of Lubbock, Texas, and after a childhood spent steeping himself in King Curtis and the Coasters, he talked his way into his aunt’s neighbor Buddy Holly’s garage band rehearsals, later convincing his grandfather to sign his guardianship over to Crickets drummer J.I. Allison so he could go on tour as a teenager. He later won a gig on Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars Tour, and would up touring and playing sessions with Lennon, Elvis, George Harrison and B.B. King, to name just a few. And, of course, after first playing on the Stones’ “Live With Me” off Let It Bleed and hitting the road with them in 1970, he became a fixture of Stones tours and recordings, famously becoming part of the circus that was the band’s “exile” period in France.
He says to this day, his favorite tours are still Delaney and Bonnie’s tour of Europe and the States in 1968, and “the very first Ameircan tour in ’72 I did with the Stones. I’ve enjoyed them all, but that was really fun.”
And, as you might guess, he’s hoping for one more shot at the glory before the Stones pack it in, but he hasn’t heard anything as of yet. “I’ll tell you what I don’t pay attention to rumors,” he said. “I was in New York putting some sax on Keith’s new solo record. And we spent some time at his house in Connecticut. The subject came up once. He said if something’s in the wind I’ll let you know. I learned a long time ago not to pay attention to the rumor mill. I know what’s going on when Keith calls me. The more I think I know, the more I learn I don’t know. I hope it happens.”