Saxophonist Bobby Keys is responsible for one of the all-time greatest and most distinctive solos in all of rock and roll. Mick Jagger’s salacious tale of Gold Coast slave ships and interracial, implicitly underage sex caused an uproar that helped sell millions of records. But when Keys blew lascivious licks on his horn on the Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar in 1971, that was its special sauce.
And then there was the time when this veteran rock ‘n' roller, who toured with Buddy Holly, played on No. 1 albums by John Lennon, George Harrison and Carly Simon, and toured with the Stones as recently as this year, performed for a rapt audience of nursery school students at a Kendall synagogue in the late 1980s.
“He was not just a friend to me, but to my whole family,” said Miami-based publicist Woody Graber, who worked alongside Keys when the musician served as the house band leader at Woody’s on the Beach, a South Beach hot spot in the late 1980s that helped usher in the city’s revival.
“He came to my son’s nursery school class and played sax for the class at the Temple Beth Am Nursery School in Kendall. The Pee Wee Herman movie was out at the time and he wanted to play a song for the kids. He said, ‘Ah, I’ll play the song from Pee Wee, Tequila.’ The kids all recognized it, of course,” Graber said. “That’s an incredible thing he did for my son’s class.”
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Keys, born in Hurlwood, a small West Texas town near Lubbock, died Dec. 1 at his home in Franklin, Tennessee, at 70. His family didn’t specify a cause but he had battled cirrhosis, according to Rolling Stone. He had to leave the Stones’ tour earlier this year.
“The Rolling Stones are devastated by the loss of their very dear friend and legendary saxophone player, Bobby Keys,” the band said in a statement. “Bobby made a unique musical contribution to the band since the 1960s. He will be greatly missed.”
Keys, one of the few rock saxophonists — along with the late Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band — to become a name in his own right, had a raw, piercing sound. And none of it was from training.
As a kid in the 1950s he’d sneak off to hear blues legends like Muddy Waters playing in clubs near his home. He met and befriended a teenage Holly there, too. Holly was playing at the opening of a Lubbock gasoline station. “And right then and there I knew I wanted to have something to do with that music,” Keys wrote in his 2012 memoir, Every Night’s a Saturday Night. Holly “just kinda lit a fuse that started burning then, and it’s still burning now.”
“This guy was the most iconic sax player in rock music. Even before people had heard of Clarence. One of the interesting facts about Bobby is that while he was responsible for some of the greatest riffs in rock music, he couldn't read a note. He played with feeling which is the way rock music should be played,” Graber said.
Born the same day as Keith Richards — Dec. 18, 1943 — the Stones guitarist would often cite Keys as a soul mate and favorite musician. On Brown Sugar, Richards decided a saxophone would work better than a guitar for the solo spotlight.
“It was the first take,” Richards would recall.
Keys also played memorable solos on other Stones tunes like Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’, Sweet Virginia and the Emotional Rescue album in 1980. Other career highlights included Lennon’s horn-driven single, Whatever Gets You Through the Night, a collaboration with Elton John from the Walls and Bridges album that hit No. 1 in 1974. He was featured on popular ’70s albums like Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Ringo Starr’s Ringo, Simon’s No Secrets and Hotcakes, Barbra Streisand’s Barbra Joan Streisand and Eric Clapton’s eponymous record. Later, he was featured on Richards’ solo projects.
“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,” Richards said in a statement.
Still, some of Keys’ greatest gigs happened in South Beach, where he lived during his days at Woody’s, the Ocean Drive nightclub named for one of its investors, Rolling Stone guitarist Ron Wood. “He led the house band, mostly local musicians, and he would always step in and play with some of the stars. One night he did a Willie Dixon performance with Ronnie [Wood] and Simon Kirke from Bad Company. Was incredible,” Graber said.
Keys is survived by his wife Holly, sons Jesse and Huck, daughter Amber, stepson Randy Kaune, brothers Daryl and Gary, sister Debbie Kanishiro and three granddaughters.
This article was supplemented with information from The Associated Press. Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.