Bobby Keys, longtime Rolling Stones saxophonist, dies at age 70

Bobby Keys, longtime saxophone player, session musician and touring member of the Rolling Stones, has died in rural Tennessee at age 70.

Best known for his runs on classic Rolling Stones albums “Let It Bleed,” “Sticky Fingers,” “Exile on Main St.” and others, Keys was an integral part of the band’s best work, and toured with them throughout his life. According to the Nashville Scene, which first reported his death, Keys died after battling cirrhosis.

The Rolling Stones confirmed his death in a statement. “The Rolling Stones are devastated by the loss of their very dear friend and legendary saxophone player, Bobby Keys. Bobby made a unique musical contribution to the band since the 1960s. He will be greatly missed.” (In October, the Stones announced that Keys was unable to join them on their Australian and New Zealand tour, citing doctor’s orders.)

Keys, 70, wasn’t just a hired hand, though. He was Richards’ longtime partner in crime, a man whom the guitarist described in his autobiography, “Life,” as “the great saxophone player, my closest pal (we were born within hours of each other). A soul of rock and roll, a solid man, also a depraved maniac.”


Keys’ so-called depravity is documented in the Stones’ notoriously unreleased (and unprintably titled) Robert Frank-directed 1972 documentary, where he’s captured with Richards tossing a TV set out of a hotel window. Keys was equally close to Jagger, and was an attendant at the singer’s 1971 wedding.

Anyone who’s ever heard “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’,” the Stones’ 1971 song from “Sticky Fingers,” knows what Keys could do on the saxophone. Throughout the extended jam, he blew both gusts and breezes as the band drove through its sturdiest blues number. During the meditation at the end, while drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman roll out a groove, Richards and fellow guitarist Mick Taylor trade rhythm and lead runs, but seem to bow down to Keys’ steady, durable punctuations.

Keys also played on the Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” “Rip This Joint,” “Happy” and “Sweet Virginia.” His work on “Emotional Rescue” propelled the band’s exploration of disco.

As well, Keys’ served as a session man on albums including Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass,” Harry Nilsson’s “Nilsson Schmilsson,” Warren Zevon’s self-titled debut and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” among dozens of others. He toured in John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band in the early 1970s, and recurrently with the Stones.

Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit