Bobby Keys: iFest Nabs Rolling Stones Sax Maniac

Bobby Keys takes an Exile on Main Street breather, Nellcote, France, 1971
Bobby Keys takes an Exile on Main Street breather, Nellcote, France, 1971

Born in Lubbock and raised just east in Slaton, Joe Ely's home town, saxophonist Bobby Keys left Lubbock in 1960 looking for kicks. At 14, he was playing with Bob Dylan influence, Bobby Vee, before moving on to a gig with seminal rocker Buddy Knox. Fifty-one years later, Keys will fly into Houston to play with Joe Ely at Houston iFest on Sunday.

"I was tired of Lubbock and Lubbock was tired of me," says the 67-year-old wild man from his home in Nashville. "Me and trouble were on a first name basis."

Born just a few minutes apart on the same day in the same year as Rolling Stones bad boy Keith Richards, Keys would eventually join up with Richards and the Stones and create some of the most revered music in the rock pantheon: Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Goat's Head Soup, Stripped and the monumental Exile on Main Street, often mentioned by critics as the greatest rock and roll record ever.

He's also played on albums by the Who, Harry Nilsson, Eric Clapton, and George Harrison. Keys was a member of Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen.

Early on in the interview, Keys made it clear that until much later in his career, he didn't know Ely or any of the other so-called Lubbock Music Mafia (Terry Allen, Lloyd Maines, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock et. al.) that has so influenced the Texas music scene for the past 35 years, at all.

"You gotta understand, I was in high school when those guys were still in elementary school, so it wasn't like I had any reason to know them," he says. "And by the time they started to come on the scene, I was long gone."

Bobby Keys and Joe Ely, live in Chicago
Bobby Keys and Joe Ely, live in Chicago

Keys actually met Ely and Maines in the early '80s at a Stones gig in Phoenix, Arizona.

"I don't usually see the opening acts 'cause I'm backstage shooting pool or goofing off until the gig," Keys explains. "But that day, Ian Stewart, who was the Stones' tour manager and part-time keyboard player, came back and said in that accent, "Bobby, there's some of your lot down the hall.'

"So I'm like, 'My lot?' And he tells me the opening band is from Lubbock. I was pretty skeptical, but when I got down to the door of their dressing room I could hear Joe talking and I'd have known that accent anywhere. So it was one of those old home week meetings."

But Keys didn't actually play with Ely until years later, when they accidentally met in a hallway at a studio in Los Angeles.

"Joe was doing a cut of Dion's 'The Wanderer,' and he knew I'd played sax on the original, so he just grabbed me and we did it right then and there, West Texas style."

Currently working on his own book, Keys figures prominently in Richards' recently released biography, My Life. His take is that "Keith wrote the right stuff."

"We went down to the islands for week and just hung out, drank a bunch of pina coladas, and reminisced," Keys explains. "I really have to hand it to Keith for the way he put his book together."


Jim Price and Bobby Keys, the Rolling Stones' Texas horn section
Jim Price and Bobby Keys, the Rolling Stones' Texas horn section

There is one scene in Richards' narrative where Keys is late for the tour bus. He is discovered in his room in the bathtub with a woman, and the tub is filled with Dom Perignon champagne rather than water. The bill for room service was more than Keys was making for the tour. Shortly after, he was not playing with band.

"There was no axe that fell, but I did miss the bus call," Keys bridles when we mention the vignette. "And the only mistake I made was not checking the price list before I ordered that stuff. Plus underestimating how many bottles it would take to fill a tub."

Keys also once shared an apartment in Los Angeles with Levon Helm.

"Man, I go all the way back to Buddy Holly," says Keys, who was kicked out of school for skipping class to go pick up King Curtis at the airport for a Holly recording session.

"I was around all that stuff when it was happening. And I was on the road with Bobby Vee before I was old enough to be out of high school. So I've seen some stuff that I think will be of interest."

After his stint with Vee, Keys moved on to play with Happy, Texas native Buddy Knox, whose single "Party Doll" was banned by many stations.

"The fact that song was about sex and nothing else really caused a storm," Keys recalls. "It was way more to the point than most stuff that was out at the time that just kinda danced cutely around the sex thing. Of course the bannings just made the song more popular."

Keys also has a new band project in Nashville that has been working out a repertoire of rock chestnuts at Mercy Lounge one Monday a month. Members include Dan Baird (Georgia Satellites), Robert Kearns (Bottle Rockets, Jack Ingram), Micael Webb (Kenny Chesney), Steve Gorman (Black Crowes) and Chark Kinsolving.

Keys explains he's doing the project "to keep the juices flowing and to keep rekindling that rock and roll spirit that you need to do this stuff."

"We're calling ourselves the Suffering Bastards," Keys laughs. "I'll bet you can't guess where that comes from."

We make a couple of lame stabs at it, but Keys cuts us off.

"I was down in Australia with Keith and we took off one night and hit a few bars. We were in this joint where the bartender had just won some kind of big mixology contest and they had all these drinks I'd never heard of before. And then I saw one called the Suffering Bastard, so we ordered those.

"I should've known it was gonna whip my ass when they served it to me in a copper cup."

Joe Ely Band with Bobby Keys, 6:30 p.m., Sunday, May 8, Houston International Festival Bud Light Stage.

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