DC at Night

DC at Night

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Sax Sideman Takes Center Stage

Bobby Keys and me
Here's a great rock and roll question for you: what do "Live with Me" by the Rolling Stones, "The Wanderer" by Dion, and "The Letter" as performed by Joe Cocker have in common?

If you answered that they all feature sax solos by the legendary Bobby Keys, you can take your place in the rock fan's Hall of Fame. And if you added that they are the 1st 3 songs on Keys' latest touring project, Bobby Keys and the Suffering Bastards, set list, then you must have been at the restored Howard Theater last night as the band played an energetic, two-hour show packed with songs Keys contributed to both live and in the studio and a few sax classics.

Of course, the staples of the night, and the highlight for many of the older crowd at the Howard, were the Stones songs from the Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street period of the late 60s/early 70s. In addition to "Let It Bleed," the band interspersed "Brown Sugar," "Bitch," and "Sweet Virginia" in their 2 sets. The group closed with "Can't You Hear Me Knockin" and encored with Keith Richards' "Happy."

Keys, who will turn 69 this year, kept up a Texas-twanged patter with the audience throughout the night, often providing humorous commentary and background on each song before it was played. Keys 1st made his mark as a session player. "The first time I heard myself on the radio, well it was little but it was a real radio, was on 'The Wanderer,'" Keys said.

After touring with Cocker's all-star project "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," (Keys also included Leon Russel's "Delta Lady" last night), he became a regular sideman for the Stones, then living with his still-best friend Keith Richards in the south of France. "Man, those were great days," Keys told the audience. "Don't remember much about 'em. The mind's kinda' vague. But we had us some good times."
Keys with the Suffering Bastards

Keys has been performing with the Stones live since those days, and if, as expected, the Stones take to the road soon to celebrate 50 years of making music, you can be sure that Keys will be there with Mick, Keith, Charley, Ron, and the rest.

But Keys also has close ties to 2 of the late Beatles. He played sax on George Harrison's "What Is Life?" and provided the start to one of John Lennon's last hits "Whatever Gets You Through the Night." The Lennon song provoked a lot of good-natured humor last night. Keys told the crowd that the song begins with the highest note he can hit on his sax. "Some nights I get it, and some nights I don't," he said. Well, last night was one of those nights. But after 2 aborted  attempts, Keys hit the note and Sufferin' Bastards were off and playing.

Even after more than 50 years on stage, it's clear that Keys truly loves the life he chose. "Man, playin' for ya'all, it doesn't get any better than that," he said. Keys' on-stage foil is lead singer and guitarist Dan Baird, formerly of the Georgia Satellites. A few times, Baird had to point out to Keys that he was skipping over songs in the play list order. "So, I'm old, and fat, and can't see," Keys responded. Keyes acknowledges Baird as a songwriter by always including Baird's piano-driven honky tonk rager "You Look Like I Could Use a Drink."

Keys said when, as a youngster, he begged his mother to buy him a saxophone, she finally relented if he would promise to learn one of her favorite songs, Duke Ellington's "Harlem Nocture." Keys did and performed an extended version of it as one of 3 instrumentals in the set. When he was 15, Keys met soul sax man King Curtis. "Man, I had questions. What kind of reeds do you use? What do you listen to? What do you wear? What do you eat?" Keys explained. Finally, Curtis imparted simple advice to Keys on how to get better. "Just point that thing near your mouth and blow," he said. Today, Keys' rendition of Curtis' "Soul Serenade" serves as a tribute to his mentorship. The 3rd instrumental was a relatively unknown B-side for Motown saxman Junior Walker entitled "Hot Cha."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As evidenced by his impressive resume, there are few in rock n' roll who have had the longevity and the depth of career of Bobby Keys. Of course, he has been sharing that experience from stages all over the world. But earlier this year, Keys released a well-reviewed autobiography entitled Every Night's a Saturday Night: The Rock 'n' Roll Life of Legendary Sax Man (as Keith Richards warns in the foreward "not to be confused with sex man") Bobby Keys. After the show, Keys signed copies of the book and talked to fans in individual sessions in the Howard's green room.  And, of course, Judy and I were there. When Keys asked how I wanted the book signed, I asked if he could make it out to our son, Michael Keith, born in 1973 and named after Michael (Jagger) and Keith (Richards). "Yeah, ol' Michael Philip (Jagger) himself just had a birthday. We're all gettin' up in years." I told Keys how much we had enjoyed seeing him on a small club stage. "Yeah, well I still love these places," he said. "Man, I started out in some small places in Texas. There were clubs where they not only shot at you, they threw grenades up on the stage." Of course, I had to ask Keys about the much-discussed, upcoming Stones special extravaganza. "I bet you'll be getting a call pretty soon, huh?" I asked. Keys eyes twinkled. "They call me all the time. They're always askin' my advice," he said. But what about that special call? "Yeah, I might be gettin' one," he said.

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