Sitting in tall cotton with Bobby Keys
By Don Stradley
Bobby Keys gets the nod. He's the official "unofficial" Rolling Stone. His saxophone can be heard on some of their best albums - Let it Bleed, Get Yer Ya Yas Out, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, Goats Head Soup, Emotional Rescue - and he was a regular on their tours since 1972 or thereabouts. You might not recognize him in a police lineup (and he was in a few, I'd guess) but you'd know him on the stage. He was the husky guy with the lank blond hair, the one who looked the least like a Rolling Stone, the one who was born in Texas and brought to the band a bit of that larger than life American recklessness, not that they needed any help in that department, and not that other "unofficial" Stones like Nicky Hopkins or Ian McLagan or Ian Stewart weren't sufficiently rebellious or capable of causing trouble. Still, when filmmakers were looking for some "rock 'n' roll action" during the '72 tour, it was Keys who helped Keith Richards throw a TV set out a hotel window. As we learn in his earthy 2012 memoir Every Night's A Saturday Night, Keys regretted that the Stones' rowdy reputation often overshadowed their music. Keys died in 2014 at 70 from liver cancer but he'll always be remembered for his tough sound, and for showing a generation of horn players that there was a place for them in rock 'n' roll. The business with the TV set will probably get a mention, too.
Keys was a typical kid from Slaton, Texas, born just after the war years, growing up with rock 'n' roll on the radio and in the atmosphere. The Slaton High School band provided him with a saxophone; his musical beginnings were no more complicated than that. The idea was to get into a band and hit the road and never look back. He played little gigs locally, mingled with older musicians, and before you know it he was appearing on sessions for Elvis Presley, and touring with Buddy Knox. He weaseled his way into studios and seemed able to get work without much effort. He must've been one hell of a likeable guy. The tone is one of the lucky hick, the guy who spent some nights sleeping in a Mexican jail, but ended up playing with the Stones and enough rock royalty to sink an ocean liner, including various Beatles, Joe Cocker, and Eric Clapton. He portrays himself as a jolly primitive ("I just stuck my horn in my face and started to blow.") and is fond of down home doggerel like, "I'm shittin' in tall cotton, and fartin' in silk sheets."
Still, few books of this sort can be written without becoming a cautionary tale, and Keys' life wasn't without some horrifying moments. He became "handy with a syringe," and one particular overdose had a disastrous effect on his short term memory. He often forgot where he lived and, sometimes, wasn't sure if he was married or not. That he somehow was able to keep playing sessions and touring during the '80s and '90s is amazing. The real gems in the book are the small observations about the musicians he knew, like how John Lennon once sat with him in a stairwell and patiently coached him on how to play "Whatever Gets You Through The Night," or how Charlie Watts was "a man who folds his socks," or how Delaney and Bonnie and Friends were, according to Keys, "better than the Stones, man for man." It's also interesting to learn that Keys started out as Mick Jagger's pal and roommate - he was best man when Jagger married Bianca - but ended up as Richards' running buddy.
The underlying story, though, is how Keys managed to stay in the Stones even after a period where he'd made a botch of things. During the band's twilight years, Richards made sure that Keys remained in the lineup, even if it meant paying him out of his own pocket. Jagger, Keys writes, would go through entire tours without saying a word to him. Still, Keys never stops reminding the reader of how lucky he was to be with the world's greatest rock band, comparing the first tour with the Stones to "entering the gates of rock 'n' roll heaven." It wasn't so much the women and the drugs, though he did his share of imbibing, but the kid from Slaton was walking among the kings of entertainment, traveling the world with unique, brilliant men he genuinely admired. An encounter with Hugh Hefner not only illustrates how it felt to be in the Stones' powerful presence, but provides the book with perhaps the ultimate line in any rock 'n' roll memoir: "He loaned us his jet even after we'd burned down his bathroom."