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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.