Classic Rock Corner

Bobby Keys: iFest Nabs Rolling Stones Sax Maniac

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."

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."

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William Michael Smith