Bobby Keys: Keeping The Sax Alive (Interview)

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The 13th Floor is pleased to be co-presenting the Bobby Keys concert at The Powerstation on April 4th. Bobby Keys, of course, is the sax player who has been touring and recording with The Rolling Stones for over 40 years. So, before he takes the stage with The Stones at Mt Smart Stadium, Keys and his all-star band will rock The Powerstation with a rare show of his own. The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Bobby Keys, who was relaxing at his home in Nashville, before rehearsals began for this latest Stones tour. It turns out Bobby Keys has a musical history that dates back to the 1950s. He’s played with everyone from Buddy Holly, Dion and Bobby Vee through to Eric Clapton, John Lennon and Harry Nilsson. Listen in as Bobby Keys regales The 13th Floor with his rock and roll stories:

Or read a transcription of the Bobby Keys interview here:

MD: You’re in Nashville, is that right?

Bobby: Yes I am. Nashville, Tennessee,  Marty.

MD: Ah excellent. So did you catch some Super Bowl action yesterday?

Bobby: Actually I did yeah. It wasn’t much of a game. The game the weekend prior to that was a really good one but yesterday was a little one sided. But the boys from Seattle took it to the boys from Denver and blew them apart.

MD: Yeah it was a bit of a blowout. They can’t all be great matches I guess (laughs).

Bobby: Yeah I know.

MD: Did you catch any of the musical section with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bruno Mars and all that?

Bobby: Oh I thought that was great. I thought what’s his name, the halftime…

MD: Bruno Mars?

Bobby: Bruno Mars, yeah. I thought he was hot. He was extraordinarily good.

MD: Yeah he had some dance moves there, it looked like he’d been watching some old James Brown moves.

Bobby: Yeah, yeah it was one of the best half time shows I’ve seen in a long time. It was really good.

MD: Did you have anything to do with the Stones when they played on the Super Bowl in 2006? Or was it just like the guitars and keyboards?

Bobby: They had a couple of songs I was going to play on… um Brown Sugar… but for some reason they didn’t do that. I’m not sure what the reason was. It was probably something to do with time. But, no, I didn’t play on that one.

MD: Now you’re going to do your own solo show here in Auckland just before the Stones gig in April. It’s a pretty exciting thing. I get the feeling these shows don’t happen that often is that right?

Bobby: No this is an unusual circumstance. I was with a guitar player who managed a nightclub here in Nashville, his name’s Chark Kinsolving. I was down at his place. We had a gig there that night. And I guess he ran into a fella from your part of the world, New Zealand, that was interested in the band coming down there to play. And this was before I knew that the Stones were going down there and playing. I said sure I’d be very interested in it and we pursued it a little further and the whole thing was shaping up. And then I found out that the Stones were going to be down there about the same time. So I had to make a few arrangements and get the ok. And so we’re going to be doing some shows there in the period of time I’m going to be there with the Stones.

MD: So you’ve got quite a cool band. I see you got Dan Baird from The Georgia Satellites singing lead and uh…

Bobby: Oh yeah it’s a great band. Mike Webb on Keyboard and Chark Kinsolving’s on guitars. Robert’s our singer and bass player. And I can’t remember who plays the drums and piano right now (laughs). Anyway we got a great band coming down now. Everybody plays in another band so it’s a lot of fun when we find ourselves able to play with each other at the same time. It’s kind of hard to coordinate four other people in four other bands with ours.

MD: Fortunately all the other stars seemed to have aligned for this one. I’ve done a little research and usually you guys do some of the old Stones songs in your own sets. Is this your chance to do them the way you think they should be heard? Or do you change them much? How do you go about approaching the songs you do?

Bobby: No. We keep it in the same spirit I’ll say. The majority of the material is from records which I’ve recorded with, songs that I’ve recorded with Joe Cocker, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison and of course the Stones. And then a couple of rather obscure songs that people probably are not too familiar with. But by in large the material, the bulk of the material is from songs that I’ve been heavily involved with. The Stones as I say or with John or George or Ringo. Pretty good wealth of talent there to take some music from.

MD: You’ve got plenty to choose from; you’ve played on some amazing records. I was curious. I know you’ve been playing since the 1950s. Back in the early days of rock & Roll in the 50s the saxophone was more like the lead instrument, like the lead guitar is now. Was that the reason you took up the saxophone?

Bobby: That was one of them. I always liked the instrument. Back then, back in the 50s, the saxophone, I was aware most of them were played on Little Richard records and Fats Domino records and Lloyd Price and most of the R&B acts you know had sax on them, especially The Coasters. You know most of the solos.

MD: King Curtis played on those wasn’t it?

Bobby: Yeah primarily King Curtis did most of The Coasters.

MD: Were there particular sax players that you looked up to and kind of kept your ear to the ground?

Bobby: You just named one! The one who was the principle influence of my saxophone career and that was King Curtis. You know, but there was a lot of others around the same time that I did listen to. You know Little Richard’s tenor man, Fast Domino’s  tenor man, there was a wealth of saxophone players. And then the electric guitar became popular.

MD: (laughs) Well fortunately there’s room for both.

Bobby: Yeah but the saxophone kind of got shoved out when Leo Fender came along and Hendrix came on the scene with their instruments.

MD: And I’m kind of curious to talk about some of the earlier sessions that you played on. Finding out that you played on Dion’s The Wanderer was kind of mind blowing. I didn’t realise that until and few months ago. And in Wikipedia they say there’s a lot of other uncredited sessions that you played on. I was wonder if you could elaborate on any of those and give an idea of what else you were doing back then in the early 60s.

Listen to The Wanderer, by Dion, from 1961, featuring a Bobby Keys sax solo:

Bobby: Yeah there was a lot of stuff that I wasn’t credited for. But geez, some of the stuff was back east. It was Little Anthony and The Imperials; Freddy Cannon. Some stuff for uh Phil Spector.

MD: Uh huh, so were you working out in New York mostly?

Bobby: Uh yeah. And then I did, I was on the road with Buddy Knox, who had a record out called Party Doll, who had two hits in the fifties actually. And then I went out on the road with Bobby Vee and we met a lot of different acts. We were doing a lot of Dick Clark package tours. We were the backup band on the tour. Bobby Vee was the headliner so being the headliner he got to carry his own band. So I played behind a whole lotta people there in a relatively short period of time. So a lot of them were just one or two songs or three songs on the stage. It was like I was a steady employee, regular employee of Bobby Vee’s band and we backed up all these other people.

MD: And touring must have been a lot different in 64, 65 than when you joined up with the Stones in the 70’s.

Bobby: Oh yeah back then in the early 60s, except for the Dick Clark tours and the other package tours which was on a bus, this is not a tour bus like they have today, this is just a bus you know, a plain bus. But I was a teenager man so I didn’t care. I was in rock n roll show business so it didn’t matter what I travelled on. But these days it has gotten better I have to say. With the Stones, travelling with them is about is easy as it can be.

MD: I can imagine yeah. Now in some of your session in the 70s, I’m wondering just how, did you get a lot of direction from the producers or the artists? Did they ask you for specific things? Let’s say when you played on a Warren Zevon session or George Harrison session?

Bobby: Yeah, yeah. A lot of those producers did like the stuff that I did. With Harry Nilsson and Carly Simon and Ringo. Those sessions were produced by a fellow called Richard Perry. And Richard always had a very definite idea. He had some strange ways of conveying those ideas. But you know we try… I prefer that we have a producer who knows what he wants to do. It makes my job a lot easier. But there were also a lot of sessions where they didn’t know that they want me to do. They just looked at me and said, do what you do. So I’m used to doing that. That primarily comes into play when I’m just playing a horn solo on somebody’s track.

MD: And do you have preferences as to what you expect when you come into a session? Do you prefer to just let them do what you do or do you want some direction?

Bobby: It depends on what I’m doing. If I’m there just to play a solo, yeah I’d like to get some input from the artist. I don’t just wana say, ok this is my way and you’re gonna love it. I do like to get some input form the artist and sometimes they’ll send me a copy of the track. And I’ll listen to it for a couple times before I go into the studio. But generally I like to go in and kind of start fresh and play off the first impression of the track. But there’s times when people have certain preconceived notions in mind and that’s fine too.

MD: Now setting the Stones aside, do you have a favourite session that you kind of took part of in the 70s or 80s? Or a favourite solo that you let loose on? Does anything come to your mind?

Jimmy Iovine, John Lennon, Bobby Keys

Bobby: Well I had a lot of fun doing some recording with John Lennon and Harry Nilsson back in the 70s.

MD: Oh right, the Pussycats album?

Bobby: Yeah that and John Lennon’s album, John Lennon’s Rock And Roll album and John’s Walls And Bridges album. Yeah I enjoyed that period of time in the studio.

MD: Well it sounds like a pretty crazy time. I’ve done some reading about the Rock And Roll session with Phil Spector and what went on. Do you remember much of that? Was it as wild as it sounds?

Bobby: It was very active.

MD: (laughs) That’s one way to put it! I love it. It sounded like it was amazing that any music got made at all back then.

Bobby: You know it does. But I just sort of listened to those albums that I played on from that period of time fairly recently ever since I discovered iTunes and how easy it was to get an iTunes. And I listened to some of the stuff we did and it sounds really amazingly good and coherent.  Back in the day, the day when some of those were recorded, there was a rather recreational attitude taken towards the procedure of making the record, which I fell right in line with. LET’S PARTY!

MD: So what specifically did you listening to on iTunes that brought back these memories?

Bobby: Well John’s album and of course Harry’s album particularly. That I hadn’t heard in quite some time. So yeah they sounded great, which I thought they did too back then. Back then point of references were sometimes not constant.

MD: And did you happen to catch the Harry Nilsson documentary that was made a few years back?

Bobby: Yeah I did see that. Who Was Harry Nilsson? Yeah, I thought it was well done.

MD: I was wandering if you thought if it was an accurate portrayal of what he was up to and what kind of guy he was.

Bobby: Yeah the people that were interviewed and talked about Harry knew about Harry. I wasn’t one of the people because I wasn’t available when that film was made. But I that it was pretty accurate. From what I know. I’m not the resident Harry Nilsson expert by any means. I knew the man quite well but not everything about him.

MD: As far as I can tell the last time the Stones played was last year in Hyde Park last July, is that right?

Bobby: That’s right.

MD: So when they’re gearing up for the tour is there much rehearsal or does everyone pretty much know what they need to do?

Bobby: No we’ll be rehearsing here in the next couple of days. In fact some of them are already in the process of rehearsing.

MD: And are they fairly relaxed affairs  or are they pretty intense?

Bobby: No they’re pretty relaxed. Pretty business like. It’s just to make sure everybody knows how to end the song and tell them the bits in between.

MD: And how do you feel about having Mick Taylor being a part of the thing again.

Bobby: Oh I think its great man. I hope he plays on couple more songs. He only played on a couple of songs on the last tour. Mick is such a great guitarist and he plays well. A very lyrical guitarist.

MD: I hope he plays more. I figure if they’re going to drag him all the way down here, I can imagine he’d be playing more than one or two songs.

Bobby: I think he probably will. I hope so. He’s certainly worth it.

MD: Does the band change at all? Or does everything kind of fall into place at this point in time?

Bobby: Well the band is pretty established. There is some rehearsal before the show. It’s not the same old show all the time. It’s changed to keep it interesting for the band as well as the people so it doesn’t get stagnant and you aren’t just going through the motions. You fall into that sometimes. But the material has changed up enough. And the band is extraordinarily good. You know so it’s always fun to get out and play with them.

MD: And it seems to me that being a side man or a session man means you get to take part in all the fun but you don’t have to any of the responsibilities. Is that an accurate portrayal of your position in everything?

Bobby: Yeah I mean I have to be responsible for myself and make sure I know the songs and am in touch with what is going on. But I mean it’s a dead easy gig cos I’m playing songs that I’ve been playing for many years now. I’m very familiar with the material. So I don’t have to worry about knowing the songs. I know the songs very, very, very well (laughs). But they don’t get old. They are a very high energy bunch of guys . What you gotta do though. Everyone you’ve gotten on up there with in years. All that is not very apparent when you’re playing. You close your eyes and its forty, fifty years ago.

Click here to listen to Brown Sugar by The Rolling Stones with Bobby Keys on sax:

MD: You’re what seventy years old yourself.

Bobby: Yeah.

MD: Do you keep track of current bands? Is there any music you keep up with and listen to? Or do you sort of fall back on the old stuff?

Bobby: Well I kind of fall back on the old stuff until…my son educates me more. He’s very much in touch with that. I kind of tune in through him. But I really liked, what’s his name, Bruno Mars yesterday on the half-time show. I thought that was great.

MD: It’s kinda cool, starting out in the fifties, your first session was with someone like Buddy Holly.

Bobby: Yeah, a long time ago.

MD: You’re kind of continuing the tradition of the saxophone in rock n roll. Do you feel like you’re carrying that legacy through?

Bobby: Well I’m a failure at crime, so this is all I can do.

Click here for tickets to see Bobby Keys at The Powerstation.

Veronica McLaughlin is a free-lance photographer and writer, as well as web-Master for The 13th Floor.