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Music

The hellraising bond between Bobby Keys and Keith Richards

In the 1960s and ’70s, rock music had a notorious set of hellraisers. Ostensibly, the names at the top of the rock music wanted list were the likes of John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bobby Keys and, sometimes, even Ringo Starr. Whilst, names like Eric Clapton have been omitted from the list, for that point we were more concentrated on those that were there or around for Lennon’s famed ‘Lost Weekend’, a period of 18-month destruction between 1973 and 1975.

Whilst many of the aforementioned names have their fair share of wild tales to tell, Richards and Keys actually shared a lot of notorious moments. For those of you not familiar with the name Bobby Keys, he was the most in-demand saxophonist of the classic rock period, born in Slaton, Texas, in 1943. Keys shared the stage and recording booth with some of the biggest names of the era. However, it would be with English rock rabble, The Rolling Stones, where he truly made his name. 

Keys started touring at the green age of 15 with famous fellow Texans Buddy Holly and Buddy Knox. If touring with one of the greatest rock ‘n’ rollers who ever lived at such a young age wasn’t to set a precedent, nothing else would. 

Keys first met The Rolling Stones at the San Antonio Teen Fair whilst he was playing with Bobby Vee’s band in 1964, and they both shared the bill. Keys would strike up a friendship with the band, and it turned out that he and Keith Richards also shared a birthday, December 18th, 1943. After that time in 1964, they would cross paths at different points, but by the end of the decade, the two would be inseparable. 

Through playing on the live circuit, Keys would strike up a friendship with Gram Parsons, another good friend of The Rolling Stones, and it was through him that he’d get to know Richards and the band properly. Remembering his friendship with Keys, Richards said: “My closest pal (we were born within hours of each other). A soul of rock and roll, a solid man, also a depraved maniac”.

Keys debuted with The Rolling Stones on the Let It Bleed fan favourite ‘Live With Me’ in 1969. He also performed on their controversial classic ‘Brown Sugar’ from 1971’s Sticky Fingers. In the early ’70s he was a prominent feature on The Stones’ songs such as ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’, ‘Rip This Joint’ and ‘Sweet Virginia’.

Keys became a constant in Richards’ entourage, and was there during the debauchery of his Côte d’Azur house, Villa Nellcôte. The experiences there played a key part in influencing the hedonism of Exile on Main St. According to Richards, the single ‘Happy’ was recorded only by him and Keys, with producer Jimmy Miller on drums. During this period, the depraved Texan maniac was loving life. 

“Yessir, buddy! The south of France, pretty girls, a young man in his 20s, a rock’ n’ roll musician, that’s a mighty good combination,” Keys recalled, adding that, “There were whisky bottles around, there were scantily clad women around. It was rock’n’roll, son.” During this period, Keys also embarked on an affair with Nathalie Delon, the estranged spouse of famed French actor Alain Delon.

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Keys and Richards were manic kindred spirits. Keys’ most notorious moment came in 1972 when he threw a television set from the 10th floor of the iconic Continental Hyatt House, in West Hollywood, California. This came as part of the unhinged 1972 American tour, which was filmed for the unreleased documentary Cocksucker Blues

Although Keys and Richards were best friends, he and Mick Jagger also became close during this hedonistic period. He even served as the best man at Jagger’s wedding. He toured with the band from 1970 to 1973, before leaving in Frankfurt, Germany, on September 30th, 1973. 

It is said that an infuriated Jagger dismissed keys after he filled a full bathtub with Dom Perignon champagne and drank most of it. This resulted in a hefty debt to the band that was much higher than his entire salary for the tour. Keys never disputed the truth of the incident, but in his memoir, he argued that he actually left the tour off his own accord, wanting to overcome his crippling heroin addiction, as his family were worried. He and Jagger would have a strained relationship afterwards and Keys would only play a handful of shows with The Stones across the rest of the decade. 

Keys and Jagger would eventually patch things up though, with a little help from Keys’ partner in crime, Keith Richards. The two had kept up their friendship whilst playing in the Stones spin-off group in 1979, The New Barbarians, which also featured Ronnie Wood. 

In his tribute to Bobby Keys after his death in 2014, Richards said: “Years later, the Stones were rehearsing for another tour. This was 1980-something, and I bought Bobby a ticket and said, ‘Just get your ass here. When we rehearse ‘Brown Sugar,’ just sneak up and do the solo, man.'”

He explained: “Once we did ‘Brown Sugar’, Bobby hit the solo and then I looked at Mick like, ‘You see what I mean, Mick?’ And Mick looked at me and says, ‘Yeah, you can’t argue with that.’ Once he just played those few notes, there really was no question. So Mick relented and said, ‘Okay, let’s get Bob back in the band.’

Bobby Keys truly was a legend. A rock ‘n’ roll hellraiser, he owed a lot to his birthday twin Keith Richards. The Stones guitarist helped to give him his massive break, and together they got up to no end of hijinx, which probably wouldn’t be appropriate today. However, it wasn’t just with The Stones where he rocked. He played with Elvis, Joe Cocker and Delaney & Bonnie, to name but a few, by the time he had joined The Stones he already had a great reputation.

Bobby Keys was a fierce musician with marvellous talent, and of course, he is remembered for his partnership with Keith Richards, but he was so much more than that, and we should never forget it. We’ll leave you with a line that Richards penned in his tribute, “He was the epitome of the rock & roll sax-playing man”.

Watch a clip of the documentary on Keys below.