Bobby Keys:
An Appreciation

When I heard that Bobby Keys, the longtime saxophonist for the Rolling Stones, passed away at the age of 70, I immediately flashed back to my teenage years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Like so many suburban youngsters growing up in that period, I was enamored with guitar rock.

Though the memories are fuzzy and my musical intelligence nascent, I bet the guitar was the only instrument I could pick out of the wall of sound produced by bands like Kiss and Aerosmith or legendary slingers like Ted Nugent and Peter Frampton. These musicians and numerous others of a similar slant were the  mainstays of rock radio during the period.

When I discovered the Rolling Stones around about 1976, another instrument entered my musical consciousness—the saxophone. As I dove off the deep end into the music of the Stones, I devoured all of their music and learned as much as I could about the band from the rock magazines of the time.

Rolling Stones In Austria

I didn’t find out the name of the saxophonist who played those incredible, muscular, and dare I say sexual, solos until years later. But the sound, on songs like “Brown Sugar,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’,” “Sweet Virginia” and most importantly (because I identified more with the guitarist Keith Richards than Mick Jagger), “Happy,” hit me to my core.

Though Mick’s harmonica work was a defining element of the band’s sound for connoisseurs, especially the biting, bitter solo on “Midnight Rambler,” the sax became the instrument for me.

After two aborted attempts to see the band while still in high school, blame parental interference, I finally got to hear my musical heroes at the Superdome in New Orleans in 1981. Bobby Keys was on the gig, as he was on every tour from the early 1970s until this year when he had to beg off due to health issues and was replaced by Karl Denson (another favorite saxophonist, but that’s another story).

I saw them a couple more times. At each  show, and during countless hours of listening to live recordings and watching videos, I was dazed and amazed at this humble sideman and his ability to add heft to the already massive iconic sound of the Rolling Stones.

Rock ‘n’ roll has receded from my musical palette like the sugary sweets of carefree youth. But the saxophone remains. Regardless of the genre, be it jazz, soul, R&B, or the brass band music of New Orleans, I am still drawn to the sound and image of the sax man, standing on the edge of the stage—blaring, bleating, or just plain blowing his head off.

Thank you, Bobby Keys.

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