BOBBY KEYS & IAN McLAGAN: Sounds Of Stones Sidemen (and Rock ‘n’ Roll) Silenced

Bobby Keys

Bobby Keys

Ian McLagan

Ian McLagan

Official portraits and lineup cards of the band notwithstanding, both in the studio and on stage the Rolling Stones have always wisely employed, and relied upon, a small nucleus of collaborators, co-conspirators, and simpatico sidemen to help them flesh out  and embroider “that Stones sound” we all grew up on. And despite the Stones’ best efforts for much of the past 50 years to disprove the theory that nothing lasts forever, this week’s news that saxophone colossus Bobby Keys and pianist/organist Ian McLagan, two titans to the side of the Stones stage, have died brings a stark, sudden, and sad reminder that even the Stones (and those close to them, especially) are not immune to the laws of nature.

The Stones have always been especially rough on piano players. First, founding Stones member and longtime road manager/sideman Ian “Stu” Stewart died in 1985 at the age of 47. British session musician/magician Nicky Hopkins perished in 1994 at age 50. Then, in 2006, Billy Preston, American solo star and super-session player to the Stones, Beatles and scores of others, died at age 59.

On Wednesday, Ian “Mac”McLagan died in his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas at age 69, after reportedly suffering a stroke. Mac, who rarely stopped working, was this week scheduled to begin a U.S. tour opening for Nick Lowe. Coupled with Keys’ death the day before, Mac’s passing means that a huge chunk of living Stones (not to mention rock) history has left the building. As keyboardist for two of England’s most beloved bands, the Small Faces (with singer Steve Marriott fronting) in the ’60s and the Faces (with singer Rod Stewart fronting and guitarist Ronnie Wood joining) in the ’70s — not to mention tours with the Stones, Keith Richards’s New Barbarians, and most recently his own Bump Band — it’s not an overstatement to say that Mac had a hand in half a century’s worth of party music.

Mac during his Faces days

Mac during his Faces days

He was also a convivial raconteur and storyteller, and his yarn-spinning gifts and generosity of spirit were in abundance during the two occasions I had the good fortune to interview him. I especially remember the first phone interview I did with him for Rolling Stone in 1999, about a new Faces compilation he had put together. Part of his involvement in not one, but two Faces-related compilations (the latter was a gorgeously curated four-disc box set from Rhino, which I heartily encourage seeking out), went beyond mere commercial considerations. Mac adamantly believed that singer-bassist Ronnie Lane, a core member of both groups, was a sorely underappreciated songwriter and the heart and soul of both bands. Lane simply had the mis/good fortune of hooking up with two of rock’s most charismatic and distinctive voices: Steve Marriott (who would go on to form Humble Pie with Peter Frampton) in the Small Faces; and a singer you may have heard of, Rod Stewart. Although overshadowed by his two flashy frontmen, Ronnie (not to mention “Mac”) made both of them better.

Such a serious bunch: The Faces making faces. L-R: Mac, Ronnie Wood, Rod Stewart

Such a serious bunch: The Faces making faces. L-R: Mac, Ronnie Wood, Rod Stewart

Anyway, I agreed wholeheartedly with Mac’s assessment during that first conversation. At its conclusion, Mac politely promised he’d get in touch when he arrived in Boston (he was touring with Billy Bragg). We exchanged pleasantries, hung up, and I thought nothing more of it. Two weeks later, my phone rang early on a Sunday morning. I let the machine pick up.  “Uh, hello Jonathan? It’s me, Ian,” said the impishly upbeat voice on the other end of the line. “We just hit town and I just thought I’d ring you up to see if you’d like to come out for the show, have a laugh and say hello.” I still have that answering machine tape.

The Small Faces, 1966. L-R: singer-guitarist Steve Marriott, bassist Ronnie Lane, pianist/organist Ian McLagan, drummer Kenney Jones.

The Small Faces, 1966. L-R: singer-guitarist Steve Marriott, bassist Ronnie Lane, pianist/organist Ian McLagan, drummer Kenney Jones.

Mac nevr stopped playing, if only to show off that marvelous white rooster shag he sported in his later years. Here he is in a rare pensive moment.

Mac never stopped playing, if only to show off that marvelous white rooster shag he sported in his later years. Here he is in a rare pensive moment. (Note that his fingers are still moving).

My interview pieces (which can be easily found at “RPM”) with Ian are here:https://rpmlifeinanalog.com/2013/11/16/the-faces-from-mod-to-rod-to-nod-as-good-as-a-wink-to-a-blind-drunk-horse/
Ian with his first band, the Small Faces, here:
Ian’s playing is all over this Faces classic, as featured in this 1971 BBC clip:
Here Mac plays the main piano riff on one of the Faces’ sweetest numbers, “Glad and Sorry,” which he co-wrote:
Here’s Mac on the ’78 “Some Girls” tour, keeping “Tumbling Dice” rolling:
Bobby Keys (with trumpeter Jim Price in background) puts his stamp on another song.

Bobby Keys (with trumpeter Jim Price in background) puts his stamp on another song.

I never talked with Bobby Keys, unfortunately, but had heard him so many times that he always felt like a friend partying in the room with me. Keys was most well known as the longtime saxophone slinger for The Rolling Stones, of course. But he was also a session sideman for many other great rock & roll artists such as George Harrison, Joe Cocker, Delaney & Bonnie, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Warren Zevon, Harry Nilsson, and John Lennon (that’s him on “Whatever Gets You Through The Night”). Keys got his musical start as a teenager by playing alongside fellow Texan Buddy Holly, but his longest partnership and closest friendship was with Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards, who was born on the same day and year as the hard-partying Texan (Dec. 18, 1943). Keys said he first heard and then glimpsed the Stones when they rolled through Texas for a World’s Fair in 1964.

Hearing a dirty harmonica, a deep groove, and chunky guitar chords, he initially thought they were a black blues and R&B outfit when he wandered over on the fairgrounds to see who it was. When he caught sight of the pale English boys behind the music, he wondered if he might be able to play this kind of soulful music too. A few years later, he made his first appearance on the Stones’ seminal “Let It Bleed” LP in 1969, and takes a memorable solo on the rollicking “Live With Me.”  In fact, save for a 15-year hiccup/ban imposed by singer Mick Jagger after Bobby blew off a ’73 European tour gig for a bathtub full of Dom Perignon and a girl to help him drink it, Keys played (in both senses of the word) and toured with the Stones for around 30 of his 70 years.

Keys during the "Exile On Main St." seassions, 1971. Photo by the great Dominic Tarle.

Keys during the “Exile On Main St.” seassions, 1971. Photo by the great Dominic Tarle.

In fact, along with Price, Keys was part of the on-stage horn section Jagger said he always wanted but couldn’t afford in the early days. In addition to “Let It Bleed,” he was all over the Stones’ next effort, 1971’s “Sticky Fingers,” conjuring now-classic solos on great tracks such as “I Got The Blues” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?”. But most famously, Bobby delivered one of rock’s most famous horn excursions on one of its most famous songs, taking the signature solo on “Brown Sugar,” a version of which is linked below. In Bobby’s case, it would not be an understatement to say his horn served up a generous, greasy slice of Southern-fried American soul  they always craved. Just listen to “Exile On Main St.” and try to isolate the songs on which Keys doesn’t play. Everybody knows that, for all intents and purposes, Keys was a constant presence and unofficial sixth member of the band during its golden era. In the leaner times that followed his banishment for the blown gig (an episode in which Richards, upon discovering Bobby in the bathtub, recalls Bobby telling him: “Go fuck yourself!”), Bobby billed himself as “Mr. Brown Sugar,” Iest anybody forget the hand he had in ingraining that tune into our collective heads. It wasn’t the same, naturally, and those years of exile from Stones street had to be lonely at times. Here’s hoping Bobby had a little bubbly and another girl to take his pain away till Keith snuck him back in the band.

Keith Richards' hand-written note about Bobby's death, posted to his twitter account this week.

Keith Richards’ hand-written note about Bobby’s death, posted to his twitter account this week.

Bobby and some other guy, 1972

Bobby and some other guy, 1972

“Mr. Brown Sugar” doing what he does best:
Keys takes a signature solo on “Sweet Virginia” during a 1972 Stones date in his home state, Texas:
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIfQipkkOqs
And somehow manages to match Mick Taylor’s solo brilliance here:
Bobby’s debut album with the Stones:
Bobby provides the signature notes on John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” here:
Bobby rip-roars on the Stones’ “Rip This Joint” :
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7 comments

  1. Joe Brez · · Reply

    Is there an email address to contact you somewhere w/in this blog? Had some pics I wanted to attach but there’s no place to send the larger files etc. James Cottons’ shows have been cancelled into 2015 so the Scullers show in Boston was a no go. Luckily his guitarist emailed me yesterday about James’ current poor health. Sure hope he recovers 100%. Tomorrow it’s Kim Simmons of Savoy Brown @ The Iron Horse in Noho.

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    1. Hi Joe, got a carpal tunnel condition so I’m the one-armed man right now and laid up away from the blog msgs, and typing is hard. my email addy is on the contact/request line home page, sorry if it wasn’t as clear as it ought to be. email: roughgems@aol.com.

      Like

  2. All emails I’ve sent to you have not gotten through. This is what I get back. Need to send via a regular email address apparently. Thanks, BREZ

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    1. Hi Joe, got a carpal tunnel condition so I’m the one-armed man right now and laid up away from the blog msgs, and typing is hard. my email addy is on the contact/request line home page, sorry if it wasn’t as clear as it ought to be. email: roughgems@aol.com.

      Jonathan Perry Waxes Rhapsodic @ RPM: Jonathan Perry’s Life in Analog http://rpmlifeinanalog.com 5 Park Street, #2 Brookline, MA. 02446 Cell: (617) 671-5415 “Serving music obsessives like us since forever and the weekend”

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  3. Reblogged this on RPM: Jonathan Perry's Life in Analog and commented:

    MAC & KEYS: One year ago this week we lost two titans who helped shape the sound, course, and texture of roughly a half-century of rock music, not to mention that of their frequent collaborators and employers, the Rolling Stones, who benefitted greatly from their skillful, soulful mastery on the horns and keys. I’d like to think of my small tribute and remembrance as a toast to Bobby and Mac, whose contributions may have come from the side of the countless stages they graced, but whose playing and personalities were frequently at the heart of all the spirited rock & roll we all heard — and continue to hear. Their legacies will live on as long as people have ears — and taste.

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  4. Keith Kohnhorst · · Reply

    Hi Jonathan: I don’t know the music scene but I know good writing and they say write what you know and you do it beautifully. I find one can enjoy any subject if the writing is engaging.

    Keith

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, thanks so much for the kind words Keith — that means a lot coming from someone who appreciates and uses words so well himself — glad you enjoyed the piece, and any others you happen upon (oh btw, your lovely wife’s interest might be piqued at one of my other little essays here, entitled ‘Dickey Rides & Snake Pits’ (not what you think!). Back in the day, she relished an anecdote I told the gals about my stint working at a record store in South Carolina where, all day, customers asked me: “y’all got dickey riiiiide??” Gott say, nevr in my life thought a stranger would ask me that question.

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