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Music by VICE

Bobby Keys Was History's Hardest-Partying Saxophonist

I spoke to Joe Ely, a friend of the late Rolling Stones horn player, about their time in West Texas's honky-tonks and their legendary escapades fueled by booze and little white pills.

by JS Rafaeli
Dec 10 2014, 4:54pm

Bobby Keys onstage in Lubbock, Texas (Photo by Marie Elena Ely)

At most house parties, someone will get drunk and nostalgic enough to press play on "Brown Sugar." Exactly 1:40 through the song, just as the sax-solo kicks in, at least two people at that party will decide to have sex with each other. Bobby Keys played that solo. If you were one of those sexy people, you have him to thank.

Keys, who died of cirrhosis on Tuesday, was famous in music circles for playing with the Stones, John Lennon, The Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and just about every other overblown rock act of the latter half of the 20th century.

He also enjoyed a reputation as a total hell-raiser. Being too wild for the Rolling Stones in the mid-70s takes some doing, but the famous story goes that Keys missed a call-time, and when Mick Jagger found him in a bathtub full of Dom Perignon with a French call girl, Keys told him to fuck off.

There are a million Bobby Keys legends just like that one that have been repeated (and inflated) in bars and tour buses over the last 40 years. But what a lot of people don't know is just how much Keys' hard-playing and hard-living were the product of the West Texas wilderness, where he cut his teeth playing in honky-tonks and bordellos from the age of 14—and which has produced a roster of musical talent totally disproportionate to its tiny population, from Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly on down.

When the Stones went on a heroin/accountancy/ego-inspired hiatus in the mid-80s, Keys returned to Texas and joined a band led by local hero Joe Ely. The two would play together for the next 25 years. I caught up with Ely to talk about his friend Bobby Keys, West Texas, and the little white pills that fueled them both.

Bobby (right) onstage with the Rolling Stones. Photo by Andrea Sartorati ​via.

VICE: Hi, Joe. Thanks for talking to me—it must be a really hard time for you right now.​
Joe Ely: Yeah, with Bobby going—and Ian Mclagan [keyboard player in Faces and many other bands]. They both went within a day of each other.

With Ian it was a complete surprise, but Bobby had been ill for a short while. He missed rehearsal with the Stones in Australia, then he called and told me that the doctor had just given him six months to live. And that was two weeks ago. He said he wanted to take a van from Tennessee across West Texas and over to New Mexico, where his family came from. And he wanted me to help him find a home for his horn. This was heavy on me—just to help Bobby make his last wishes. But immediately after that call he took a turn for the worse, so we never got to make that trip.

But I got why he wanted to do it... you know, growing up in that dusty, windy part of the country—he just liked West Texas. The wind and the dust shaped his personality—his whole being was like a West Texas dust storm; he lived hard, traveled hard, played hard, y'know, with all that that takes. That was his being—and how he played, and that's what got him noticed by the Stones in the first place... he was untamed. [laughs]

Keys playing "Brown Sugar" with The Rolling Stones in Texas (1972)

All these amazing musicians came out of, like, two or three towns, right?
Yeah, Lubbock had Buddy Holly; Bob Wills came from Turkey; and Roy Orbison was from a little town south of Lubbock called Wink. But there's a lot more. There's a lot of music there for some reason—no one can figure it out. I guess there's not a whole lot else to do there. And there's a whole lot of sky, so the only thing you can fill that sky up with is music.

Bobby kind of grew up playing in different bands around there, from when he was just a kid... one called the Teen Kings that later backed Roy Orbison. It was just a lot of Lubbock musicians who played together. But it was really when he joined up with a guy named Buddy Knox that he took off on the road.

Then the Rolling Stones were on their first US tour and did a show opening for Buddy Knox—that's where Bobby met Keith. They kept it up, and then a few years later they asked him to come and play with the Stones. It all came from West Texas dance bands playing in honky-tonks.

Keys (left) and Ely (right) onstage in Lubbock, Texas. Photo by Marie Elena Ely

What is it about that scene that produces these musicians and wild guys?
Well, back in Bobby's day it was all fueled by rock 'n' roll, whiskey, and little white pills. People out there were like farmers and ranchers—y'know, hard working people. When Saturday night came along they'd take their little money and head to the dance hall—that was the only thing to do. There was no other scene apart from the honky-tonks on one side, and church on the other

One for Saturday night, one for Sunday morning?
Yeah, and sometimes Saturday night would roll into Sunday. But those bands in the 50s and early-60s, playing these old spots... they were rough, dangerous places. They were lawless. The West Texas and Oklahoma honky-tonk scene was totally lawless.

We used to play these shows and there'd be a thousand people in there and not a security guard in sight. Everyone would bring their own booze because a lot these places were dry, so you'd have to buy stuff from bootleggers. The bootleggers sold half-pints of gin out of their cars and wore big, old pistols.

There was just no law out there—the law left those places alone because it was too dangerous for them. It's just the way things are when you get out into the wide-open spaces. Like, England has been settled for 2,000 years—my city just celebrated its 100th birthday. It's kind of a brand new land.

Keys playing "Sweet Virginia" with The Rolling Stones in Texas (1972)

It's funny, a guy like that from Lubbock, Texas ending up playing with a bunch of skinny Brits in velvet suits.
Well, it's kind of ironic, because when my band first went to England in '77, or '78, the first guys we ran into there were The Clash. That was like Bobby with the Stones... there was something about the music, something between London and Lubbock. Even going back to Buddy Holly, he was bigger in England than he was over here.

There are all these huge cultural differences, but Lubbock had this real influence on London rock 'n' roll. The Stones did "Not Fade Away" as, like, their second release, and the Beatles did Buddy Holly songs, too, and took his melodies for their own stuff.

And you ended up singing on a Clash record?
Yeah, I sang all the Spanish parts on "Should I Stay or Should I Go." Joe Strummer figured that, since I was from Texas, I should know Spanish... and I guess I did, kind of. Then I translated all that stuff later, and it was all completely wrong. Nobody seemed to care, though, because it was such a great song.

I brought the Clash to Lubbock, too. They really wanted to play there—and places like Laredo and El Paso; all the places in Marty Robbins songs.

I guess that West Texas scene is where Bobby Keys got his reputation for partying, too?
Oh yeah, Bobby could stay up all night with the best of 'em. I remember one tour in Canada—every show could have landed us in jail.

Another show was on his birthday, and someone brought up some tequila. There was a tray of 30 shots, and I was like, damn, there's only like five of us in the band—we're all gonna be smashed. But they were all just for Bobby. By the end of the show he'd done them all and was still playing hard. Though, that night did cost us a repair on the motel room the next morning.

His personality was kind of larger than life... kind of like those old movies, like Giant and Hud, or Big Sky. He wasn't a fighter, but the way Bobby came on you just didn't want to mess with him. He was a great human being—a great personality.

Photo by Marie Elena Ely

Is the scene out there still producing those same kind of characters?
Well, it still does, of course, because it's isolated. The next real city is Dallas, and that's, like, 300 miles away. Although, sadly, a lot of those big ranches have been taken over by corporations, and a lot of those personalities are gone. It's tamed down a lot now... most people's idea of a big time is going to a football game.

But still, it's isolated; there's not much out there. You make your own way, build your own life. It's not a city where people live off of each other. So it was kind of amazing for Bobby to have come from that with his horn and to find his own way into the world. The chances of that were not good, even if you were a really good player.

Bobby had a lot of his own inner strength, which got him out there and joined him with all the great bands. That's where it came from—the lawless, wide-open spaces... wide roads with few cars and buildings with only one or two storeys because of the wind. There's so much space and nothing to hide behind, so everything you do is right there in the full-blown sun with the dust blowing around.

That place had a lot to say about how Bobby played the horn. He played it like he was chasing a tornado.

Thanks so much for taking the time.