Robert Henry Keys was born on December 18 1943 at Slaton, Texas, and took up playing the saxophone after being injured while playing baseball. His affinity with the instrument was immediate, and by the age of 15 he had convinced his grandfather, who looked after him, to sign over his guardianship to Jerry Allison, a local drummer who was working with Buddy Holly in Lubbock, Texas, the regional music hub 15 miles south-east of Slaton. Keys joined Allison’s band, the Crickets, and was soon playing behind Buddy Holly, Buddy Knox and other local rockers.
Keys never learnt to read music, but even at this early stage he exhibited a feel for rock and roll along with a powerful sound which would keep him busy as a session man for the rest of his life. He claimed to have played on such hits as Elvis Presley’s Return To Sender and Dion’s The Wanderer. He toured widely as a core member of Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars, then joined Delaney & Bonnie, an American band which counted George Harrison and Eric Clapton among its admirers.
When Delaney & Bonnie began recording in London, the Rolling Stones’ producer Jimmy Miller hired Keys to play on the band’s 1969 sessions for Let It Bleed. The Stones subsequently invited him to join them on the road, and Keys soon became rock’s foremost saxophonist.
He had first met the Stones during their US tour of 1964, when they played a concert in San Antonio, Texas, where he was appearing with Bobby Vee’s band. Initially, he was suspicious of the British “interlopers”, but after seeing them play Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away with what he considered more verve than the original he embraced the band. Keys went on to play on many of their albums, including Exile On Main Street and Goat’s Head Soup, and accompanied them on tours around the world.
Initially, Keys was close to Mick Jagger, acting as an usher at his wedding in 1971, but his appetite for excess soon found him bonding with Keith Richards – together they wrecked hotel rooms, fired pistols and consumed industrial quantities of drugs and alcohol. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 2013, Keys proudly declared: “I’ve been smoking pot for over 50 years… I am a devout pothead.”
He also described what it was like living in London in the 1970s: “It was like everybody had shiny brand new records out that they were selling and everybody was bopping up and down King’s Road and going to pubs and clubs and there was a lot of music going on, man. Everybody was wearing shiny pants and alligator shoes. It was really cool.” In 1972, when the Stones were playing Madison Square Garden, Keys smacked a lemon meringue pie into the face of a New York policeman. Eventually his behaviour became so erratic that, by the mid-1970s, he found himself temporarily banished from the band.
The reason for his sudden exit, Keys claimed, was his determination to impress a French model he had met on tour by filling the bath in his hotel room with Dom Perignon.
When the call came that it was time to leave the hotel for the concert, Keys ignored it; the next morning he discovered that the tour had moved on without him. Later Keys suggested that his addiction to heroin was what had led to his exile.
He found this a difficult period in his life: “When you’re not on the payroll and you want to continue the Beverly Wilshire lifestyle, but you’re only geared for a Holiday Inn existence, things are gonna catch up to you. ”
He continued to record, however, with a variety of artists, among them Barbra Streisand, George Harrison, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, Lynyrd Skynyrd, B B King, Eric Clapton and Joe Cocker. He performed club dates as “Mr Brown Sugar” and was occasionally brought back to play on Stones recordings. He toured with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood in their 1979 band the New Barbarians; he also briefly managed Wood’s nightclub in Miami.
For much of the 1980s his addictions confined him to the sidelines, but in 1989, during rehearsals for the Stones’ forthcoming world tour, Richards managed to infiltrate him back into the band.
Keys’s friendship with Keith Richards caused him to be interviewed at length for the guitarist’s bestselling autobiography Life (written with James Fox, 2010); and in 2013 Keys published a memoir of his own, Every Night’s a Saturday Night.
In recent years he had played regularly with Sheryl Crow and led his own band, the Suffering Bastards . In 1972 he released an eponymous solo album .
On the advice of his doctors, Keys did not join the Stones in November for their rescheduled tour of Australia and New Zealand. He died in Nashville from cirrhosis of the liver.
Bobby Keys, born December 18 1943, died December 2 2014