Keith Richards once said Bobby Keys' greatest problem in the early '70s was that, for a while, the Lubbock-born sax player deluded himself into thinking he was a member of the Stones' inner circle. Richards and Keys were great pals, drug buddies from way back whose passion for controlled sustenance grew exponentially upon the death of their pal Gram Parsons, but Richards had to set him straight a couple of decades ago: Keys was forever going to be a Stones sideman, a hired hand brought in for a few songs on some of the records and for the tours, never to be included in any photos.
Keys now says--by phone from San Antonio, where he first met the Stones 31 years ago--he never once thought he was a Stone, just "part of it because I have to feel that way in order to play and to keep doing this for so damned long. I'm not a Rolling Stone--I've never fooled myself into thinking that I was or was ever going to be--but I definitely feel like I'm part of the band because I've contributed to the music and to some of the songs. I ain't a board member."
Keys has been part of the Stones' touring band for 24 years, and a contributor for longer than that--he first laid down a track on "Live With Me" from 1969's Let it Bleed--an authentic Texas-born-and-bar-bred rocker (recorded with pal Buddy Holly, toured with Bobby Vee) brought in to flesh out the sound, to give it grit where it only had sugar. Keys stuck around, laid down a sax riff for "Brown Sugar" ("I've had a 20-year career based on one saxophone solo," he cries, laughing), and toured through hell and heaven, always complacent (he says) to head back to the one-nighters and Tennessee roadside attractions when the tours ended.
To hear Keys (also a guest on records by John Lennon, Delaney and Bonnie, and Ringo) tell it, the tours haven't changed much--just larger entourages, more folks to carry your luggage through airport terminals, someone to tell you not to wear the marrow-tight purple leopard-skin pants in front of 35,000 people.
"You stop and think back, man, and in 1970 there was a lot more cavalier attitude about stage presentation and varying stages of awareness that one takes the stage in," he says. "You'd go back to the hotels, and there was always several hundred girls out there waiting in the lobby. Now, I walk outside and 90 percent of the people asking for my autograph are men. That's kind of a different perspective.
"Back then, it was a little more free-form--a little more energetic and colorful. Still, on stage, it's a rock and roll band, the best I ever played with."
The Rolling Stones perform November 18 at the Cotton Bowl.
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