My name has opened a lot of doors in the music business.
When a publicist or band manager gets a message from Bobby Keyes, they usually return the call pretty quickly. Sadly, their enthusiasm dims when they realize it’s not Bobby Keys on the other end of the phone, but Bobby Keyes.
That extra “e” in the last name makes all the difference.
Bobby Keys, with one “e,” is a world-class sax player from Texas, whose greatest claim to fame is not that he has played sax with The Rolling Stones for several decades, but that he may be the only man on this planet who can drink Keith Richards under the table and live to talk about it.
Bobby Keyes, with the double “e,” is a hack journalist from Maine who wishes he could write for Rolling Stone, and sometimes ends up under the table when he fools himself into thinking that he can still party with the big boys.
So when the opportunity came to finally talk by phone to the famous Bobby Keys, I jumped. “Do you have any idea how many times I have been mistaken for you over the years?” I asked.
He was not surprised, and relates a string of stories about impostors over the years who have tried to use his identity to get backstage passes, special access to the band and various other favors, usually involving women.
I assure him I have never abused our mistaken identity – it is my real name, after all – although I do admit the time that Stevie Ray Vaughan invited me into his dressing room for a conversation was pretty cool, and probably would not have happened had my name not piqued his curiosity.
The point of my conversation with my namesake was to discuss his new biography, “Every Night’s a Saturday Night: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Life of Legendary Sax Man Bobby Keys,” published by Counterpoint Press.
Saxophone player on and off with the Stones for 40 years, Keys has lived a sideman’s dream. In addition to his tenure with the Stones, he has also played with John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Buddy Holly, among others. He uses the book, co-written with Bill Ditenhafer, to tell his story.
Q: I suppose after Keith’s book, “Life,” came out last year, you had no choice but to write one.
A: Keith’s book definitely had an effect on me. I wanted to write one about the music, and not about the excesses and the crap and the non-music (stuff) that goes along with it. But I have actually been thinking about it for a long time. I signed a contract about 20 years ago to do a book. But the co-writer and I were on separate pages. She wanted to write about sex and drugs and sex and drugs and sex and drugs. She did not want to write about the music.
But the guy I wrote this one with, he and I just got together and spent a lot of time talking. We spent a lot of time in the corners of restaurant-bars sipping tall cool ones and relating the past in glorious terms.
He was easy to talk to. He was a musician, and knew the right direction to go with the questions. I had given him my ideas, but I was not enthusiastic going into it. I had to be pushed into it. But he had the same idea of the story to write as I did. What you read is what I said. He just wrote it down the right way. I didn’t monitor what he was writing, but when I read it, it sounded like the way I told it. It sounds like my voice.
Q: Why do you feel you got pushed into this?
A: A lot of it started on the road, after a show. The guys in the horn section and the two girls in makeup and wardrobe, we were always on the same escape bus at the end of the show. Me being the elder, I would tell them old war stories. They would ask me about times with John Lennon, and I would relate all the stories. They seemed to enjoy it. A couple of people suggested I ought to put that stuff down.
Q: Keith has high praise for you in his book, and you make your friendship with him sound very real and honest. What do you treasure most about his friendship on a personal level?
A: His honesty. You know where you stand with the guy. There are a whole lot of things I could say about that boy, but I will only say that he is the most special and unique individual I have had a close association with in my life. I’ve known him damn near 50 years. John Lennon was a sweetheart. I loved working with him and I loved hanging with him, but Keith has been my pal since the ’60s. He saved my life. He got me off the hard drugs and saved my job with the Stones.
Q: How’s that?
A: I left the band under some pretty shady circumstances. I committed the cardinal sin: I quit the band and left them in a lurch. I did a few tours after that, but there was a little division there between Keith and Mick (Jagger) in the ’80s. I was Keith’s friend, and when I would go on the tour, they would only let me play on Keith’s song and “Brown Sugar.” It was a bitter pill to swallow. But I was lucky to be on stage with those guys, and they eventually let me back in.
Q: Any word on another tour?
A: Nothing official that I am aware of, but I am not the first person in the food chain to know all the information. I’ve stopped asking Keith. When he knows something, I will know.
Q: Describe what it’s like playing with the Stones on the big stage.
A: It’s a lot louder than it is playing on a small stage. It’s not really the size of the stage so much. I am used to it. It’s still fun. As many times as I have played “Brown Sugar,” I play it just like the first time I played it. I love that music, and it never became an excuse to be up there.
A lot of bands that I have seen who have had hits in the past get up there and go through the motions. But not the Stones. Jagger is the best guy I have seen on stage, ever. He is the quintessential rock performer. The link between (drummer) Charlie (Watts) and Keith is the heart and soul of the Stones music. Charlie is the engine. He is the heartbeat of the band.
Q: OK, so contrast that with what went on with the X-pensive Winos. I liked the part in the book where you talk about the difference between playing a timed show with the Stones, where everything is choreographed, vs. something a little more loose and spontaneous like the X-pensive Winos.
A: Well for one thing, the Stones is a whole different deal. They have nearly 50 years of material. With the Winos, it’s not so much about past material. The presentation is very low-key as far as whistles and bells go. But as far as the spirit of the band, the Winos capture the early essence of rock ‘n’ roll on stage. Just pure music. We would just walk out on stage, group together, and it was really casual and just a bunch of guys getting together and playing in the garage.
Whereas the Stones, it’s bing, bang, boom, lights are flashing and thunder’s clapping and all sorts of stuff is going on. It’s an event as well as a concert.
Q: What is next for you?
A: I have my own band, the Suffering Bastards. We are doing some gigs. We have a brand new shiny website, bobbykeys.net. But right now, I am in Chicago playing with a band I have never seen before, a Stones tribute band. It’s kind of strange, but I pick up extra cash here and there and do these gigs when they come up.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: