By Eric Hisaw

(LSM May/June 2011/vol. 4 – Issue 3)

Bobby Keys, once called the “ruby-lipped essence of Lubbock, Texas” on an LP jacket, stood pokerfaced as he listened to Yoko Ono describe the sound she was looking for. His considerable chops and credentials aside, Keys had a long way to go in winning over the notorious avant-garde artist, and for the sake of his friendship with her husband — John Lennon — it was of paramount importance that he nail this particular session.

Courtesy Bobby Keys

Courtesy Bobby Keys

Keys had recently moved into a bungalow on the property that the couple owned which had previously been occupied by one of Ono’s photographer friends, and so far he wasn’t Ono’s favorite guest. She had struggled to bring her mate out of the dregs of the rock ’n’ roll ghetto and into artistic respectability, and the Texas-born saxophonist represented everything she was fighting against. Lennon, much like Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones before him, had latched on to Keys immediately upon learning that he’d grown up around Buddy Holly and the Crickets. The former Beatle, like many of his British contemporaries, was searching for that true primal energy of early rock ’n’ roll and Keys proved to be a sturdy link. It also didn’t hurt that Keys, like Lennon, had thrown himself headlong into the “period of experimentation” that was the late-60s, and the two musicians shared an interest in mood-altering substances. While Ono strived to keep the fast friends separated, Lennon had devised a plan to get Keys in her good graces.

“Yoko had been working on this piece of art, this music,” Keys recounts. “She was winding down the end of the session and John had been campaigning for me as a musical source. John told me to get my horn and come over, it was just down the path. Yoko was almost done but there was something missing. John was saying, ‘Please, please do good,’ you know, so we could still play together.”

But the music Keys heard when he got to the session was nothing he was prepared for.  “They play me these tracks, this really bizarre stuff, but that’s not the stuff I’m gonna play on,” he continues. Before they put on the track, Yoko says, ‘OK Bobby, let me tell you what this is about. I’m painting a portrait with my music; this is the picture: It’s the north of England, the fall is passing and winter is coming on, there is this pond, all the denizens are gone … ’ — and I remember she used the word ‘denizens.’ And then she says, ‘Now there is this one bullfrog, one last lonely bullfrog sitting on the last lonely lily pad, with the cold wind blowing up his backside.’ And I’m sitting here listening to this thinking I have no idea what the hell I’m gonna do. This girl is serious and I can’t show any flicker of amusement because that will immediately make things a lot worse for John and mine’s friendship. And she said ‘I want you to be the voice of that frog, that one lonely bullfrog that is finally having to give up his grasp on his home, this is the voice that I want!’ Alrighty, not exactly what Marvin Gaye would ask for, but I can’t show any flicker of doubt, no, ‘What? Are you out of your mind?’”

As with many self-taught, non-music-reading horn players, Keys had developed a method to finding a part to play on any song. Using his uncommonly gifted ear, he’d blow the lowest note on the sax, a low B flat, and by hearing the interval that created against the root of the song, he could work out his part. The engineer cued up the track and Keys honked out his test note.

“All of a sudden, her eyes light up and she comes running into the cutting room, going, ‘Thats it! You’ve found my frog! You have found my frog!’ And John’s like ‘Alright, yay Bobby, now we can still play together!’ And I played that low B flat with all the conviction and character I could possibly put in to one low note.”

Hitting the right note at the right time seems to be Bobby Keys’ specialty. And over the course of a career that stretches back more than half a century, he’s hit a whole lot of them, onstage and on record with some of the biggest acts in rock ’n’ roll, including the not only Lennon but the Rolling Stones, George Harrison, Joe Cocker, Sheryl Crow, and fellow West Texan Joe Ely. But the outlaw sax man and friend and confidant of millionaire British rock stars is perfectly at home in the humble Dripping Springs Mexican restaurant where we visit for a couple hours. He speaks freely to the waiter in the same West Texas Spanglish my farmer grandpa used, and proves open and extremely gracious, kind and easy to talk to, asking only that the resulting article note that he is not associated with any social network sites bearing his name, as they have been full of faulty facts and misrepresentation. I’ve apparently come to the table with my own bit of misinformation, having been under the wrong impression for years that Keys, though raised in Lubbock, was born in Albuquerque, N.M. He sets me straight quick. “Fuck no, I ain’t from there!” he exclaims. “I’m all Texas, buddy!

Photo by Chrissy Flatt

Photo by Chrissy Flatt

“I love Texas, I really do,” he continues. “I’ve gotten in many fights over Texas, and one of my main antagonists about Texas is my best friend in life, Keith Richards. Keith is a student of history. Keith’s always giving me grief, telling me ‘Y’all are just a bunch of thieves, you went down there and stole the country.’ Now this is all tongue and cheek …”

He laughs, and then tries for a couple minutes to get Richards on the phone. No luck. Keys shrugs and admits that the two notoriously wild friends now spend most of their time together playing dominoes and talking history — but cops to their guilt in most accusations.

Growing up southeast of Lubbock in Slaton, where he was raised by his grandparents, Keys was just a regular West Texas small town kid. A freak accident in a pony league baseball game left him with a broken bone in his face and put an end to his brief and admittedly unremarkable athletic career. Sports and school pride making up the nucleus of society in rural Texas at the time, he decided to join the school band as a means to participate. A battered baritone sax was the only remaining instrument the school had left to offer. Without much of a musical background — he notes that his grandmother somewhat enjoyed Eddie Arnold’s singing and his railroad-worker grandfather didn’t care for music at all — Keys found the sax came to him naturally. “I knew how to hold the horn, how to put it together, how to roll the lip back over the teeth, how to hold my mouth, it just came easy,” he says. “If I could hear something I could play it, I mean really basic stuff at first, but as time went on it just got easier.”

In late ’50s Lubbock, rock ’n’ roll was beginning to blossom. Charles Hardin “Buddy” Holly was asserting himself as the local visionary, starting off on bluegrass and honky-tonk music and then adding elements of the rhythm and blues that would blow in on the far-reaching airwaves late at night. Keys first spotted Holly and his group at the grand opening of a gas station in Slaton. “That was the first time I saw anybody play electric guitar or heard anybody sing anything that was different than what was on the radio,” Keys recalls.

Assuming a mascot-like role amongst the older musicians, Keys was there when it all came together. Elvis Presley played the Lubbock area several times in the mid-50s. His shows had a profound impact on the young musicians, providing a blueprint for the music they were already pursuing. Keys certainly saw his future when his girlfriend instantly transferred her affections to the character onstage right before his eyes. “I knew right then man, that’s where I had to be,” he says.

King Curtis was a tenor sax player from Fort Worth who crossed paths with Holly on the road. Enamored with the unique sound the horn man delivered on R&B records, Holly invited him to the Clovis, N.M., studio where he recorded. The older musicians dispatched the young Keys to pick Curtis up from the Amarillo airport. The sessions resulted in Holly’s hit record, “Reminiscing,” and also Waylon Jennings’ first recordings, “Jole Blon” and “When Sin Stops.” Keys was only a spectator in the studio that October afternoon, but he jokes that the experience “threw my whole life down the toilet!” From then on there was no looking back.

Keys knew he wanted to play, and shortly after Holly’s death he got the chance when J.I. Allison of the Crickets hooked him up with Buddy Knox, whose career was slowly cooling from his mega-hit “Party Doll.” “All of a sudden at the last minute he needed a sax player, and so he called J.I. and asked if he knew anybody,” Keys recalls. “He said, ‘There’s this kid Bobby Keys, he knows about four or five songs.’” Keys joined up with Knox for a tour of Midwest ballrooms, where they were booked as a “show and dance.”

“The dance was Buddy’s band, the Rhythm Orchids, going out and playing dance music, things like ‘Honky Tonk’ and even ‘Sail Along Summer Moon’ and ‘Summertime,’” Keys explains. “And then Buddy would come on and that was the show part.”

Knox, who had hit big with a lean rockabilly sound, was an odd employer for the young horn player. “I mean he didn’t have any saxes on his records so I couldn’t figure out what the hell I was doing there,” Keys says. “Well, I did figure it out — I was the youngest guy in the band, so I was the one who was always loading and unloading the trailer; I was the one who was always going to get shit. I was in show business man, I stuck with it.”

Knox eventually quit the tour, leaving the band stranded on the road. “Buddy Knox left town, had a family emergency, he and his old lady had a fight. I woke up in Sioux Falls, S.D., me and the rest of the band, and he was gone.”

Not wanting to go back to Lubbock, Keys looked around for a gig. “There was this place called Shorty’s Lounge, and the band there, Myron Lee and the Caddies, they were the hot-shot item of Sioux Falls, which doesn’t carry a lot impact maybe, but he had this gig with Bobby Vee out on the road,” Keys says.

Vee, a hot property with several national hits, ended up recruiting Keys to back him up on a Dick Clark Caravan of Stars tour in an old bus. “It got pretty funky on there pretty fast,” Keys recalls. “There was a certain segment that was at the back of the bus, drinking and shooting dice, and I gravitated toward that end of the bus. I was a young kid then but I knew there was more action going on back there.”

Eventually the Caravan of Stars led the young sax player to his future musical partners. “It was on the Dick Clark tour that I met the Stones,” he says. “It was their first trip over to the States and the record they had out was ‘Not Fade Away,’ a Buddy Holly song. We were all staying at the same hotel in San Antonio.” Keys impressed the Brits with his connections to Holly and the Crickets, and he got on especially well with Richards. They found out that the even shared the exact same birth date.

It would be a few years before Keys and the Stones would meet up again, though. When the Vee gig wound down, Keys found himself in Los Angeles hanging out with other musicians he’d crossed paths with on the road. At that time there was a burgeoning scene of rural-raised Southern musicians making waves in the L.A. clubs. Keys connected with an Arkansas-born drummer and harmonica player he’d met in Canada named Levon Helm. “He was playing with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks,” Keys recalls. “They were just the shit-hot band of the land, man. They were packing them in.  Levon was just one of those kind of guys, so friendly and so open as a person. We kind of just struck up a friendship. The way we really got to know each other was arguing about Texas-Arkansas football games.”

The two musicians ended up living together for a brief period in L.A., and Helm would have a big impact on Keys’ approach to his horn. “He had a wonderful collection of blues artists, 45s,” Keys says. “He turned me on to a whole world of blues harmonica players, and something just really locked in for me with that.”

Levon and Keys played with a floating cast of musicians in a band that played the Peacock Alley across the street from the Ambassador Hotel in downtown L.A.. In one of Key’s many brushes with legend, they were playing the night Bobby Kennedy was shot at the hotel. The nameless group split in to many directions, with Keys winding up with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, playing a potent brand of Southern-fried rock ’n’ soul that attracted an unprecedented amount of peer respect amongst British musicians. Through producer Jimmy Miller, the Rolling Stones were aware of the group and were hoping to get Bonnie to sing on “Gimme Shelter.” The somewhat possessive Delaney balked at that idea — Keys calls it “a Southern thing.” But Keys himself found his way into the Let It Bleed sessions, blowing the dynamite solo on “Live With Me”.

Just when it looked like the Bramletts were headed for major stardom, “the Delaney and Bonnie thing ended abruptly, an unscheduled band explosion,” Keys says. The nucleus of the group hit the road with Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, an oversized rock ’n’ roll circus led by Leon Russell. Never meant to be a long-term project, the tour did a lot to expose the abilities of its members. Eric Clapton, looking to put a new band together, approached a set of the players. Keys and fellow Texas horn player Jim Price were flown to London on the premise of joining up with Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes, but a different fate awaited them. They were met at the airport by George Harrison’s people, who whisked them off to the former Beatle’s mansion to add parts to his legendary All Things Must Pass album. Clapton had apparently changed his mind about having horns in his band, and swapped the American musicians to his friend.

When the Harrison sessions wound down, Keys crossed paths with Mick Jagger at the Speakeasy in London. “Mick said, ‘Come play some stuff on the new Stones album,’” Keys says, “and I said, ‘Sounds good to me pal -— got any money?’” At that time, a nasty tax situation had put the hurt on British musicians’ cash flow, and Keys leveled with Jagger about what it would take to keep him in England. The Stones obliged and shortly thereafter Keys was in Olympic Studios reaching for immortality with his definitive moment on the classic “Brown Sugar.” The rest is history.

Keys and his horn partner Jim Price would go on to make major contributions to the most deified of all classic rock albums, Exile On Main Street. Keys has a large role in the 2010 documentary, The Stones In Exile, recounting the making of the album. In one scene, Charlie Watts gives the Texan credit for walking him through the drum beat on “Ventilator Blues,” to which Keys laughs, “Where I ever had the balls to try and tell Charlie Watts where the two and four were is beyond me … God bless his heart and patience.” Keys is also prominently featured in two other recent releases from the Stones vaults: a live DVD, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones, recorded at a couple of Texas shows in 1972, and the expanded reissue of the Exile album with several bonus tracks. Keys continues to contribute to the Stones’ music both in the studio and on tour, despite falling out of favor with Jagger at times for his perceived bad influence on Richards. The Stones guitarist’s recent autobiography, Life, has a wealth of great Bobby Keys stories and quotations.

Joe Ely and Bobby Keys onstage in 1986. (Photo courtesy Joe Ely)

Joe Ely and Bobby Keys onstage in 1986. (Photo courtesy Joe Ely)

The Stones, with Keys in tow, have been on a roll for most of the last two decades; but there was a spell in the mid-80s when it appeared that the band was finished. That’s when Keys moved to the Austin area and connected with fellow Lubbock expatriate Joe Ely. Ely had long been aware of the legendary sax man through mutual friends in the tight West Texas music community, though they didn’t meet until the Ely Band opened for the Stones in Phoenix. The Stones’ piano-playing tour manager, Ian Stewart, alerted Keys that “some of your lot” (fellow Texans) were on the bill. They later connected at one of Ely’s famed Tornado Jams in Lubbock, and Keys ended up playin on Ely’s 1987 album Lord of the Highway and joining his touring band for a short while. Ely bassist Jimmy Pettit remembers Keys bringing Richards to see the band at the Lonestar Cafe in New York City, with Richards standing stage side, grabbing a startled Pettit by the boot and giving him a thumbs up. The recently released Live In Chicago 1987 captures the band with Keys on a particularly hot night.

“We took him on the road with us for almost, oh, maybe half a year,” recalls Ely, hinting that Keys might have stuck with the band longer if not for a little hitch that came up regarding a tour of Europe. “At first Bobby said he was going to go, and then he kind of checked into things, and found out he had some warrants back in Scandinavia for his arrest, and he decided he’d better not go!” Keys lives in Nashville now, but he has managed to reunite with the Joe Ely Band for a handful of select dates in recent years.

It’s raining hard when we drive Keys from the restaurant back to the Zone, the Dripping Springs studio he’s staying at while in town for a recording session. Having lost track of time over the course of many rounds of Don Julio and my endless stream of questions, we arrive to find the gate locked, and Keys has misplaced the code. Cell phone calls go unanswered in the stormy night. We hop out of the Jeep and walk along the fence looking for a way in. The studio’s guesthouse is still a few hundred yards up the road, so it’s a long muddy way back to shelter. But Keys and I are contemplating a boost over the fence when his phone finally rings with the info we need to drive him up to the front door. Ely laughs when I recount the story to him over the phone a few weeks later. “That’s Bobby’s life story right there,” he says. “Feast or famine.”

Blessed with an easy ability to assimilate to his surroundings, and the talent, timing, and intelligence to hit his marks, Bobby Keys has moved freely amongst the biggest names in rock ’n’ roll history while never losing the charm and warmth of a good old boy from Slaton, Texas. The uniqueness of his journey cannot be overstated, because along with Dr. John, Levon Helm and Leon Russell, he’s one of the few players left who have made a substantial mark in every era of rock ’n’ roll. In his New York Times best-selling book, Life, Richards tells of sneaking Keys past an angry Mick Jagger back into the Stones by hiding him until it was time for the solo in “Brown Sugar.” When Keys came honking in, Jagger spun around, surprised, then gave Richards a defeated shrug, as if to acknowledge you just can’t argue with that. Because in those notes you find the true essence of rock ’n’ roll, the right mixture of grease and a little West Texas dust.