Note: An earlier version of this story said Bobby Keys toured with Buddy Holly. It was Buddy Knox. Keys left home at 16 to become a touring musician.
There’s Ronnie, Charlie, Bill, Mick, Keith and – Bobby?
The man who many consider the sixth member of the Rolling Stones is a Texan named Bobby Keys. He grew up in Slaton, just outside Lubbock, and played saxophone with just about everyone, it seems –from Chuck Berry and Carly Simon, to John Lennon and Sheryl Crow. Plus the Stones, of course.
A documentary about Bobby Keys is screening Wednesday in Austin.
Musicians Charlie Watts, Joe Ely, Lisa Fischer and Keith Richards praise Keys in “Every Night’s a Saturday Night: The Bobby Keys Story.”
“Bobby Keys was the – definitely one of the most important rock saxophonists ever,” says Jeff Stacy is the film’s director and producer.
Producer Jeffrey Brown agrees. “No one does it like Bobby. He has a grittiness that parallels or compliments guitar parts like no one else.”
But the journey from Texas to the big time, you might say, began when Keys was just 12 years old.
“He was lying in bed and heard music coming in through his bedroom window and he went out, climbed a tree to see what it was and it was Buddy Holly playing on a flatbed wagon,” Stacy says. “He said once he saw that, it was just a matter of time. It was a call for Bobby.”
Bobby Keys originally wanted to play guitar but said his fingers were too short. And after an injury prevented him from joining the football team, Keys discovered could still be part of the action as a member of the marching band. He picked up the tenor saxophone. Never learning how to read music, Keys taught himself, in part, by listening to the music of Fort Worth’s King Curtis.
Keys would also sneak into a local bar to hear Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
At just 16, he left west Texas to go on the road.
He toured with Buddy Knox and pop star Bobby Vee. He put his signature sax sound on Dion’s “The Wanderer,” and Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender.” He fell in with a group of musicians in Los Angeles, known as Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, whose members, at one time, included George Harrison and Eric Clapton. He would later record with both.
But in the mid-60s, Bobby Keys met the British five-piece who would really put him in the spotlight.
At a stop at the San Antonio Teen Fair, playing with Bobby Vee in Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars, Keys had a sort of wardrobe malfunction, says producer Jeffrey Brown.
“Bobby went to put his pants on and he tore the hem out of his pants so he had to go on stage with cowboy boots and Bermuda shorts when everybody was dressed in suits,” Brown says.
The Rolling Stones were there. And Keith Richards remembered the moment a few years later, when he invited Keys to play on the song “Live With Me.”
Richards and Keys grew close – as it happens they were born on the exact same day and they had something else in common: a propensity to stir up occasional trouble. They famously threw a television set out of a hotel window while on tour in 1972, for instance.