A Break With Bobby Keys

Sometimes I lay off the heavy reading and dig into a rock and roll biography like Every Night’s a Saturday Night by Bobby Keys.

Bobby’s most well-known for his work over several decades with the Rolling Stones, but he’s also recorded with Elvis Presley, toured as part of Delaney and Bonnie and Friends and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishman, played sax on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, and laid down the slammin’ intro to John Lennon’s hit single “Whatever Gets You Through The Night”. The book doesn’t waste much time on introspection or soul-searching; when the author of a memoir mentions “my wife at the time” in the middle of a story, and this story is not preceded by an earlier story in which he meets or marries this wife, you realize that this isn’t going to be one of those intense and deeply personal memoirs. And that’s okay. Sometimes you just want to read about a saxophone player and his saxophone. (We never find out his first wife’s name, but his saxophone’s name is Elmer).

Here’s one of the nice passages in the book, describing life onstage with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell, who never planned exactly how songs would end:

All those endings were great, except ol ‘Leon would just carry ’em on out and on out, and I don’t know that anyone who’s not a horn player can have any idea how thin the air gets when you’re hittin’ those real high notes. Because you gotta put a little extra effort into those. So by the time that it actually got to the end of the song, I was able to see molecules with my naked eye — you know how when you run out of oxygen you see the little squiggly things in the air? I’d think, “Goddamn, I’ve reached another level of awareness!” I never passed out, but there were plenty of times I thought I’d reached another plateau.

You know I love Yoko Ono’s music, but Bobby Keys is quite funny at her expense when he describes a recording session with the Plastic Ono Band at John and Yoko’s country mansion:

… I got my horn out and put it in the studio and went over and said hi to Yoko and asked her what she wanted me to do. She said “Come on over here, I’ll tell you what I want,” and she steered me to the door so that we were looking outside. Then she proceeded to tell me this long, involved story about this pond in the north of England, and all the creatures of the forest have left the area, and there’s this one bullfrog sitting on a lily pad, the last denizen of the area that’s still there, with the cold north wind blowin’ up his backside. Winter’s comin’ on and the summer’s gone and there’s just this one miserable frog, and he, apparently, was a very integral part of her fabric of her son. And she wanted me to be the bullfrog. To be mournful and sad and have the north wind blowin’ up my behind.

While she was telling me this, I was looking at John, and John heard what she was telling me and then he kinda looked at me and then kinda looked away, and then he kinda looked at me and then kinda looked away. In other words, it was like, You’re on your own, man. I can’t help you, the water’s too damn deep. So I was out in the studio, the track was playing in the background, and I got my horn out and put it together. Then, as I normally did, I closed all the keys on the horn and hit a low note — this gets all the pads closed, it gets the air moving through it and warms it up. ‘Hooooooooonk’. Low A-flat, man. And Yoko’s eyebrows went up about six inches, her eyes lit up, and she said “That’s it! That’s my frog!”

Bobby Keys is from Lubbock, Texas, and the first musician he writes about in this book is Buddy Holly, who he never got a chance to play with. The last is Keith Richards, who gradually became his lifelong best friend. If Keith’s wonderful memoir Life left you jonesing for more of the same taste, Bobby Keys’s book is a great aperitif. And here’s a video featuring one of Keys’s signature musical moments, which I remember hearing live on the Stones’s 2003 tour: the bleary, grimy saxophone break that begins with a trilling moan at about the 3:14 mark in this live recording of Can’t You Hear Me Knocking. Enjoy!

[UPDATE: YouTube has now blocked that unauthorized Rolling Stones video, but you can hear the saxophone jam on any other version of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, including the studio track.]

5 Responses

  1. I love the story about Yoko.
    I love the story about Yoko.

    Speaking of Delaney & Bonnie, one of the best rock & roll biographies I’ve ever read is by Bobby Whitlock, who started with D & B and then was a major part of Derek and the Dominos along with Eric Clapton, Carl Radle, and Jim Gordon.

  2. …the stones man, love the
    …the stones man, love the stones. can’t believe they’re doing after all these years………fred and barney. was looking forward to the youtube until copyrights got in the way. a shame how cash is such a downer…

    horn sections

    early am air seasoned just slightly with coming heat
    two dogs chasing flies around, cornered one and got it

    photographers and the clueless in rapid discussion
    about new orleans guitar players with horn sections

    modern day rum runner on the fayetteville to austin line
    cigarette hounds step up to the grill and make selections

  3. Interesting. I had thought
    Interesting. I had thought that Lou Marini probably did the sax for Whatever gets You Through the Night.

    Learn something new every day.

  4. Well, damn, YouTube blocked
    Well, damn, YouTube blocked the video for copyright violation! I guess it’s my fault — that was up for a while before I linked to it.

    Thanks for letting me know, hypcollector. If anyone wants to hear the saxophone jam I’m talking about, the good news is that it can be heard on the studio version of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” or many other live recordings of the song.

    TKG, he writes a bit about the experience of recording that song with John Lennon, who apparently came up with the idea that he should begin the intro with the high note (clearly, a good idea).

    Bill, thanks for the tip on Bobby Whitlock’s book — I will look for it. I’ve always been particularly interested in the tragic story of Jim Gordon, the amazing drummer who eventually went completely insane and killed his mother. Curious if Whitlock sheds any light on this …

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