Two Rolling Stones’ sidemen have passed away this week within a day of one another. And, they were two of the greatest rock and roll sidemen ever.
Before there was Clarence Clemons, there was Bobby Keys. I know that there are other great rock saxophone players, but these two—well, they are a force of nature. Both have similar styles in that they make the sax growl.
You can hear Bobby’s sax wailing away on “Brown Sugar” and “Rip This Joint” just to name a couple of his greatest solos.
Bobby was a wild man on all fronts living life at 110 miles an hour. He used to get into trouble with Keith Richards often, which eventually became an issue for Mick Jagger. Keith loved Bobby and understood him to be essential for the Rolling Stones sound. I love the story in Keith’s book where he had to “sneak” Keys back into the Stones by tricking Mick for him to understand.
The story goes, after not touring for the longest while, the Stones recorded the album Steel Wheels and started to put a band together to rehearse for that tour. Jagger forbade Keith to invite Bobby back on tour fearing too much ruckus and disruption. Keith called Bobby up and told him to come to rehearsal but not to tell anyone he was coming. He essentially hid Bobby and told him to sneak into the horn section just before they were going to play “Brown Sugar.” The band starts playing the song and when the solo comes, Bobby steps up and blows. There is only one man who can play that solo in the unmistakable way that Keys can—the walls rumble as the band gets kicked into overdrive. Mick looks over at the horn section, and says, “What the……? Keith looks at Mick and says, “See!”
Bobby Keys toured with the Stones for all of Steel Wheels.
The second great sideman who passed is Ian McLagan, who played keyboards. You may know him best as the keyboard player for the Faces with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood, but he also played with the Stones in the studio and on tour. He played a lot on the Some Girls album and you can hear his electric piano on “Miss You.”
I met Mac on the road with the New Barbarians, a band put together by Ronnie Wood to promote his new solo album at the time, Gimme Some Neck, on Columbia. The other guitar player was Keith, the bass player was Stanley Clarke, the drummer was Zigaboo Modeliste (from the Meters), and on sax, Bobby Keys.
That tour was like ‘better living through chemistry’—I’d never seen so much cocaine in all my life. Anyway, suffice to say everyone was staying up all night a lot.
One night after a gig I dropped Mac off at his room and told him I’d pick him up next morning to escort him in a car to the airport. I slept as best I could, got myself together that next morning, and went by Mac’s room to pick him up. He answered the door in the same clothes he had on the evening before and was holding a bottle of shoe polish in his hands and a toothpick. He says, “You gotta see this. I’ve been up all night working on it and just finished it in time to leave for the airport.” He points to a mural that had to be 4 feet by 4 feet hanging over the bed. It was a pen and ink drawing of a big park with the view looking down over it from above. There were all kinds of trees and scenes of kids with balloons, parents walking with strollers, people playing baseball, a carousel, popcorn venders, etc., etc. I said, “So?” He told me to look closer. Mac had stayed up all night doctoring every illustration with black shoe polish to make every scene totally pornographic!! Gals were going down on guys, the popcorn vender’s shlong was hanging out of his pants, dogs were doing it doggy style—anything and every thing you can think of was now being depicted in what appeared to be the same black ink and style as the original art—it was hysterical!
The funniest part is, that mural could still be hanging over that bed in that hotel because if you don’t look close, it just reads as a black and white pen and ink illustration of a park scene. It only gets nuts if you really begin to study the “art work”. Ha, ha. Well, that’s rock and roll for ya!
There are people who play music that viscerally moves us, makes us shake our fannies and tap our feet. Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan are giants in that field.