Bobby Keys, Rolling Stones Saxophone Soloist on Hits, Dies at 70

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Bobby Keys, the saxophone player whose work with the Rolling Stones included a memorable solo on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” has died. He was 70.

He died yesterday following a lengthy illness at his home in Franklin, Tennessee, the Associated Press reported, citing Michael Webb, a keyboardist who played with him. The Nashville Scene newspaper, also citing Webb, said Keys had cirrhosis of the liver.

On Oct. 15, the Rolling Stones’ official website reported that Keys “will not be joining the Stones for the Australian and New Zealand tour dates” because he was “under doctor’s orders to take it a bit easy for the next month and hopes to see everyone soon.”

A native of West Texas, Keys played with Joe Cocker and Eric Clapton and then, in London, with John Lennon and the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger. He played with the Stones on albums including “Let It Bleed,” “Sticky Fingers” and “Exile on Main St.”

“Sticky Fingers” (1971) included the song “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” with Keys’ extended, jazzy sax solo. Other songs on which he left his mark were “Emotional Rescue,” “Rip This Joint” and “Brown Sugar.”

In a statement yesterday, the band said it was “devastated by the loss of their very dear friend and legendary saxophone player,” who “made a unique musical contribution to the band since the 1960s.”

‘Cheer Up’

On Facebook, the band shared a handwritten note by its guitarist, Keith Richards: “I have lost the largest pal in the world and I can’t express the sense of sadness I feel, although Bobby would tell me to cheer up.”

Keys was born on Dec. 18, 1943, at Lubbock Army Airfield in Hurlwood, Texas, where his father, Bill Keys, was in the U.S. Army Air Corps, according to Keys’ 2012 memoir, “Every Night’s a Saturday Night.” His mother, Lucy, was about 16 at the time.

When his parents moved on to New Mexico, where they had more children, Keys mostly remained in Slaton, Texas, with his grandparents. He said he was 10 when he saw Buddy Holly, then a Texas teenager, playing at the grand opening of a gas station, and he “knew right then” he wanted to play music too. He had no guitar so settled for saxophone after being assigned one by his high school band.

Career Path

He toured with Buddy Knox in North America, and with Clapton in Europe, then joined Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour and recorded with George Harrison. In 1969 he joined the Rolling Stones in the studio to record “Live with Me,” a song for “Let It Bleed,” released that year.

He re-connected with the band in 1971 as the Stones were working on “Sticky Fingers,” their first album under their own label. Keys said he lobbied front man Jagger to play regularly with the group.

“I wasn’t aiming for a full-time gig, really,” Keys wrote. “It didn’t enter into my mind. But we were listening to a lot of Otis Redding at the time, and I could tell Mick was really taken with using the horns to bring another dimension to their music.”

Keys, who had managed to keep up with his friend Richards in the partying department, left the band in 1973 to deal with what he called “a very bad heroin problem.”

He played on Cocker’s 1978 album, “Luxury You Can Afford,” then reunited with Richards in the New Barbarians, a short-term band formed by Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood that included Stanley Clarke on bass. In 1989 he rejoined the Stones as the band ended a hiatus and began its Steel Wheels world tour.

“It’s been said that I’m the only guy who’s ever split with the Stones and been allowed back into the fold, so to speak,” he wrote. “Well, that may be true, but the fact is, in my mind, I never really considered myself out of the fold.”

Survivors include his wife, Holly, and a son, Jesse.