Just a small selection of some of the many many interesting tales and points from Bobby Keys excellent autobiography ‘Every Night’s A Saturday Night -The Saxman with ‘The Spirit Of Rock N Roll to the bone.’
‘Bobby Keys is a master of blowing hot air thru a brass tube by manipulating a series of values..’ Keith Richards
‘Getting that horn (a Conn Connstellation) was one of the biggest moment of my life ..and I practiced and practiced..’
His first gig nightmare..
‘I learned this song ‘Cherry Pink And Apple Blossom White.’I knew it backward,forward,and sideways.
The thing I didn’t know was that you can’t let your reed dry out.A saxophone is made of brass,but the reed is a small,thin piece of wood which fits into the mouthpiece.It’s what produces the sound,through its vibrations.Now wood -any type of wood -not just cane wood when its sliced real thin, will kinda pucker and curl around the edges if it gets wet,which in the case of a saxophone reed makes it impossible to play.The reed has to fit snugly,and for that to happen you’ve supposed to wet your reed beyond the warping point.Put it in your mouth and suck on it like a lollipop.You have to saturate the cane fibres with saliva. You have to moisten it,and when its thoroughly moist,it’ll hold its proper form.
Well,I knew that..so on the morning of the show I packed up my sax and didn’t get it out til it was time to play,and the minute I wet my reed it had completely dried out by then and it warped.It looked like a potato chip.The first note I hit was THE WORST NOTE EVER HEARD BY ANYONE,EVER.My saxophone wouldn’t play,it just emitted a series of squeaks and honked.It was humiliating…It was really horrible..so as Bobby says Never ever EVER forget to wet your reed before you go onstage,buddy.’
He recovered from this setback and music became his whole life.
Meeting King Curtis
‘KING CURTIS WAS MY SAXOPHONE HERO…When he came to Amarillo to record with Buddy Holly I skipped my basketball match and I went and picked him up from the airport,drilling him for tips and advice..’ King Curtis used a lot of tonguing and a lot of phrasing that was more a country fiddle-playing-style approach.It was a very precise,very difficult to do.He didn’t play any jazz notes at all,just straight-ahead rock n roll.Hardly any blue notes-sevenths 5ths. He had such a distinctive style,really up tempo.It was fun music.To me anyway…I played on his last album on a track called ‘Ridin Thumb.’
Bobby Keys didn’t read music..Joe B Maudlin said when he met Bobby and asked if he was a music reader he said ‘I don’t read enough to hurt my pickin’ any.’It always amazed me I never saw Keys read any music at all.’
On the road with Buddy Knox ‘I was enlightened..one day I could play more than the day before..I suppose just from practicing and playing and getting used to the instrument whatever it was I was getting better.’
In the book check out very funny tales of him falling off stage from his early days of smoking herbs pages 41-42
I had had a bad cigarette habit until I realized I couldn’t finish playing a phrase that I used to play in one breath…I didn’t need any patches cus I knew if I blew this gig with the saxophone I was f***ed!
I had no plan B…Man,if you got no lungs,you got no gig,and if you got no gig you up s**T creek.’
First Meeting with The Rolling Stones 1964 and The Secret to Bobby unique style
Brian was the first one I met as he was a saxophone player.He played alto sax,and not very well.But he was also a guitar player and a harmonica player.Anyway because of knowing Buddy Holly that opened the door for a friendship.
The first meeting made a big impact on me.Within the first minute that I actually sat down and talked with Keith,I knew this was a special guy…he like Buddy Holly had no fear. Sp though I didn’t care for The British Invasion when it began because of the lack of saxophones in the game,they did help to bring about a resurgence of American blues music.
That type of music -blues well I wasn’t a school musician.I didn’t read,I Didn’t depend on arrangements or a section to play with..So being the only horn player I started playing Rhythm.It kind of an open field because nobody’d ever really done it that way…I learnt a lot from Levon who turned me on to Little Walter,a harmonica player,and that was crucial.He was the one who suggested that ,instead of playing like a saxophone player,maybe I should play like a harmonica player.And I took him at his word.Good advice-Thank you Levon.
From that point on,I started taking a lot of my phrasing and approaches to playing the saxophone from blues harmonica players.I’d taken my rock n roll influences from King Curtis which wasn’t a bad thing but then I fused that with Little Walter and I don’t play a lot of notes. You don’t see me running a lot of scales and stuff like that. Its pretty straightforward rock n roll.
When Bobby played with the Stones..
‘We’d pick up something that Keith had played and followed that.Songs like ‘Bitch’- the horn line on that is the same thing as the guitar playing.The notation is a little bit different,but the rhythm and the feel is exactly the same as the guitar. ..
Great Bobby Keys lines about music and songs -‘They’re all hits till they’re released.’
On blowing high notes
‘and I don’t know anyone who’s not a horn player can any idea of how thin the air gets when you’re hittin’those real high notes.Because you gotta puta lotta extra effort into those.So by the time it actually got to the end of song,I was able to see molecules with my naked eye-you know how when you run out of oxygen you see the little squiggly things in the air?I’d think’Goddamn,I’ve reached another level of awareness!I never passed out,but there were plenty of times I thought I’d reached another plateau.’
His sales line for work:-
“Look you son of a bitch,if you want a hit record you hire people who play on hits…my rallying cry-More Horns…but as often ‘I was simply at the right place at the right time.’..networking.I had some A-list credentials in my hip pocket like George Harrison ‘Oh I can get Bobby Keys for that..’
His breaking into being part of The Rolling Stones with his awesome ‘Brown Sugar’ solo and ‘Can You Hear Me Knocking.’
My first big solo was on ‘Brown Sugar’ although before they was a horn solo there was a guitar solo by Mick Taylor.Then on December 18th both Keith and my birthday we had a birthday party at Olympic Studios London and Eric Clapton was there and a whole bunch of people and we ended up recording a version of ‘Brown Sugar’ which I played a solo on.And it pricked Mick and Keith’s ears. ‘Brown Sugar’ was considered a done deal but we went back in and I did it again in One take….
but where I crossed over from being just an added musician,an overdub musician,to actually playing with the band was when we did ‘Can You Hear Me Knocking.’But it couldn’t have been less planned..The song was already worked up and there wasn’t any particular part for horns on it.So all fine,I’ll just sit there and listen so they play through the song the vocal part of the song.But when they finished that Mick Taylor just kept playin,’ the percussionist kept playing and when Mick started the second part of the song my ears perked up because I knew this was a jam- so I grabbed my horn and started playin’.I came in and had no idea what I was gonna play.I just stuck my horn in my face and started to blow.I mean I knew what note I was going to start on,but that little trill thing..and as it turns out that became the real defining sound for me. That was a first take..when we got in the mixing room I was feeling pretty good because I thought Hey man I just got another solo..then I heard Mick Jagger say ‘I don’t know if we’re gonna use that,It was a fun jam,but..’..anyhow they did end up using it,which worked out well for me.’
Charlie Watts always loved horns and Mick asked him to go on the road.
On the road when we started playing ‘Brown Sugar’ every night I just played a different solo every night til Mick said ‘Hey Bobby if you play something similar to what’s on the record,people will love it,’ and he was right.So I took the studio solo out on the road with me…I’v played it thousands of times and I’ve never really tired grown tired of playing it..It’s a simple solo..there’s no saxophone virtuosity there.It just seems to fit.’ The art of a perfect sax solo summed up.
Working with Yoko Ono and John Lennon
Bobby was hanging out with John Lennon then he was called in to work with Yoko on an album of her original music …
‘so I was in the studio,the track was in the background and I got my horn out and put it together.Then as I normally did,I closed all the keys on the horn and hit a low note-it gets the air moving through it and gets all the pads warmed up. Hooooooooooooooooonk.Low A-flat,man.And Yoko’s eyebrows went up about six inches,her eyes lit up and she said,’That’s it!That’s my frog.‘..She was very happy..turns out,all it took was one note and the doors flew open.
‘ Whatever Gets You Through The Night,’I was just playing about and I hit a high note and he said ‘thats where we gotta come in on.Come in on that…and then stuff like ‘you don’t need to play so many notes,you can simplify it a little bit’ until I played the solo in the song-which became his only number 1 single as a solo artist in his lifetime-it was John’s idea structually what to do and when to do it.’..John also coached me through parts before a studio session and saved me from certain death from embarrassment cause I couldn’t read at all.’
A pure sax madman incident,
Bastille Day 1971 as The Stones took tax exile in the cote d’azur and when not being Mick Jaggers best man to his marriage to Bianca,recording lots of music and partying at Nellcote,started seeing the gorgeous Natalie Delon and ogling Bardot sunbathing au natural ..then a classic sax madmen moment..Bastille Day..I always had a fascination and love of fireworks and I sorta lost control of the roman candles and they crashed into my neighbour’s villa and then all of sudden,my neighbour’s door flew open and this guy-a diminutive little guy,wiry comes out with a burgundy silk robe over his pyjamas..I did a double take,during which he said with his haughty British drawl ‘Do you Mind?’Then I recognised him:It was David Niven..he turned on his heel muttering ‘Bloody Americans.’
Ideas that often Sax copying the guitar line on ‘Bitch.’ Well actually it was Keith’s line,I was just copying it and then often many of the horn lines would come from the guitar lines.
On Live Performances in 1972
We were well-rehearsed for touring and even in front of 50 60 thousand I wasn’t being asked to do something I couldn’t do,I wasn’t afraid to go on that stage because I knew damn well I could deliver whatever the hell it was they needed to done with the saxophone.I could do it with my f…eyes closed.Which they usually were. That’s the way I play…in 1972 that was my graduation class and I was playing my ‘dream gig’ with the greatest rock n roll band in the goddamn solar system…
More crazy hedonistic antics abound on throwing tvs out of hotel windows,burning down hotel rooms, staying at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion 1972,taking Lsd with Keith before playing in Australia with his sax feeling like it was a cartoon man I was sh1ttin’ in tall cotton.It was a wonderful time to be on this planet for Bobby Keys.
However it all ended with a heroine problem and driving a car into a canal in Holland ..and Keef said ‘Keys Nobody quits the Rolling Stones Nobody.’ And then when Keys explained Richards said ‘Well you had better make it count.’
He straightened up played with Joe Cocker and at one point contracted in the ‘A’ band Ray Charles horn section to play on Cocker’s album Luxury You Can Afford…the best band in the business..Hank Crawford,Dave ‘Fathead’ Newman both Blowout Sax stalwarts and heroes to us all in my recently penned book Blowout Brother SoulSax…’I didn’t want that session to end,so I kept it going for as long as I could…He played with interesting people Lionel Hampton,knew King Curtis and all the significant stuff with Rat Charles.The Fathead name was a hipster term for someone who was high on pot…playing with these guys was like a religious experience..the benchmark ..the men.’
Bobby Keys called his sax ‘Elmer’ and during his exile from the Stones when he was living in Nashville,Death Valley for sax players and when the Stones did their publicity stunt driving through downtown Manhattan 1978 on the back of a trunk the crowd were shouting ‘Where’s Bobby?’ With Keith saying ‘He’s coming.’They also used Sonny Rollins,Ernie Watts and Daddy G and in the ’80s Bobby played only his own solos…but as Jim Keltner said ‘the ‘worlds greatest rock band,’only sounded like the Stones were supposed to sound when Bobby Keys played with them and not when these virtouso players played with them..Bobby plays ‘with the spirit of rock n roll to the bone.’ So ‘Keith gonna have to slide you through the back door.’
Playing at Bruce Willis wedding with Keith where I played ‘Harlem Nocturne’ slogging through the sand panting and sweating and also ‘Sleepwalk.’
the best conclusion in his words..
Amongst the many greats Keys recorded with are B.B. King,Barbra Streisand,Chuck Berry,Dr John,Eric Clapton,John Martyn,Keith Moon,Marvin Gaye,Sheryl Crow and Yoko Ono.
Amongst the myriad of projects I am working on is editing The King Of SoulSax on the late great King Curtis. Many of the songs I’ve transcribed are by Sam Cooke including A Change Is Gonna Come inspired and utilised most poignantly in the series Treme on the election of President Obama.He also played the killer solo on Aretha Frankln’s Repect.
The great Pee-Wee Ellis living in the west country and a lovely man most recently seen guesting on stage with Dr John at the Colston Hall was also a pillar of the James Brown band and co-wrote ‘Say It Loud-I’m Black I’m proud.’
photo by Simon Archer of www.simonarcherphotography.co.uk