The ‘Sixth Rolling Stone’ Was A West Texan Named Bobby Keys

A new documentary celebrates the life of a sax player, whose iconic horn appears on hits by everyone from Sheryl Crow to the Stones.

By Leah ScarpelliSeptember 19, 2018 9:30 am

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.

But it wasn’t just talent and a lively personality that got Keys into the studio with so many notable musicians.

“Bobby was a bit of a hustler, in the best sense of the word, in convincing people he needed to play on their records,” Brown says.

“He would go in and while they were listening to playbacks, he would go, ‘That’s good but it doesn’t really rock. What you need are some horns,’” says Stacy.

That’s how Keys came to play what many consider his most memorable saxophone solo – originally a guitar lick on “Brown Sugar.”

“Bobby picked up a sax and when there was time to play, he played,” Stacy says. “And Jimmy Miller who was the producer for the Stones at the time, liked what he heard.”

“He makes it iconic,” Brown says.

Bobby Keys would continue to collaborate with the Stones until his substance abuse got in the way. But he eventually got clean and his career continued – until he finally started his *own band in 2010, and passed away from cirrhosis of the liver in 2014.

Director Jeff Stacy says Keys is part of a legacy of Texas tenor saxophone players.

“I think Bobby fits right in with King Curtis certainly, who he idolized, but Illinois Jaquet and Arnett Cobb and all these guys who would just blow the hell out of a tenor saxophone. There’s a Texas tenor sound which is, they blow hard and they get a little dirt in there and it sounds good,” Stacy says.

But it was the merger of gritty sax and rock ‘n roll that may be Keys’ most enduring legacy. Stacy says you can still hear it in rock music today.

“They still will throw horns in there. I mean, you hear horns in some stuff. And I think they all owe a little bit of it to Bobby that it stayed current,” Stacy says.

Through it all, Stacy says, Bobby Keys never really knew what set him apart.

“I think he just loved the music. I know when I asked him about it, he was just like, ‘If I start out right and know when to stop, I’m good. I’ll be good in between.’ And he was,” Stacy says.

“Every Night’s a Saturday Night: The Bobby Keys Story” is screening Wednesday night at the AFS Theater in Austin. It’s scheduled for cable release at the end of November.