Bobby Keys isn’t the first, second or fifth name that comes to mind when you think of the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are two of the most recognizable rock stars in the world, of course; there’s impossibly stoic and steady drummer Charlie Watts; there’s longtime guitarist Ron Wood; there’s late, drug-fueled, founding member Brian Jones. Mick Taylor. Bill Wyman. The list of Rolling Stones legends is a long one.
Bobby Keys is a name that only serious and studied fans may recognize. But make no mistake, his saxophone playing was the secret weapon in making the Stones’ 1969-1972 era one of the most vital in rock-and-roll history. “Brown Sugar,” “Rip This Joint,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” “Sweet Virginia” — those are just a few of the classics that feature Keys blasting away on tenor saxophone and giving the Stones a healthy dose of the gritty American roots sound they had long been grasping for, one that took a true Texan to provide.
Keys does have a place in Stones lore. It’s just that he’s known more for his exploits in hotel rooms instead of onstage or in the studio. There’s the story about how, during a 1973 tour stop in Belgium, he took a soak in a tub filled with Dom Perignon. (“The only man who knows how many bottles of it it takes to fill a bath,” Keith Richards said of Keys in his 2010 memoir, “Life.” The stunt — which enraged Jagger — was supposedly the final reason for Keys’s decade-long absence from the group. He’s performed on every Stones tour since 1982.)
Then there’s the iconic scene from a 1972 Stones documentary in which Keys and Richards send a large TV plummeting 10 stories to its inevitable destruction. “Television’s boring, anyway,” Keys drawls before he and Richards drop it off a balcony and laugh as it splinters into pieces.
“The destruction of one home appliance . . . I don’t want that to be my legacy!” Keys says with a chuckle while chatting from his current home in Nashville, 40 years after his destructive moment.
That’s one of the reasons Keys wrote “Every Night’s a Saturday Night,” one of the most entertaining rock memoirs in a recently crowded field. Now 68, he’s been playing music since he was a teenager and not just with the Stones. He got his start alongside Buddy Holly, hooked up with the Stones and eventually played with the likes of John Lennon, George Harrison, Joe Cocker and Harry Nilsson. “Saturday Night” gives a stage-left perspective on a lifetime in rock-and-roll and mostly leaves the mayhem out of it.
“That’s all been well documented by hundreds of other books written about the rock-and-roll business,” he says. “You know, man, I wanted to talk more about the music and not the sensationalistic side of it.”
Richards’s book served as inspiration for Keys to tell his own story. After Richards’s co-writer, James Fox, interviewed Keys while doing research for “Life,” he was impressed with what he heard and asked Keys if he had ever thought about writing his own memoir. In fact, he had, but that attempt 20 years earlier was derailed by a co-writer, assigned by his publisher, who wanted to take what Keys calls “a tabloid, National Enquirer” approach — the exact opposite of what Keys was aiming for. New collaborator Bill Ditenhafer proved to be a much better match, and the pair worked through Keys’s memories while “drinking a few beers and eating some salads” over the course of many afternoons in Nashville.
The cast of characters is truly astounding, and Keys says the one thing they all had in common outside of musical ability was a sense of humor.
“John Lennon, who was a good friend of mine, he had one of the best senses of humor of any human being,” Keys says. “And Keith Richards, fantastic sense of humor. They were smart, sharp. They had their own thoughts on matters.”
In addition to his newfound success as an author, Keys still performs regularly and is coming to the Howard Theatre on Saturday with his new band, the Suffering Bastards. The group features members of the Georgia Satellites, Black Crowes and Bottle Rockets but has Keys in the rare position of getting top billing.
“I don’t even think about that, man. I’ve never thought of my name at the top of the marquee in any particular terms other than, you know, slight bewilderment,” he says. Keys calls the group a “sometimes band” because every member has other regular gigs. It’s an outlet for a bunch of guys who simply enjoy playing music, getting on stage and delivering a no-frills show.
“We just get up there and play rock-and-roll music, man,” Keys says. “Everybody sweats and has a good time.”
The band’s set mostly draws from the deep catalogue of classics that Keys has performed on, and that includes plenty of Stones songs. People will show up expecting to hear Keys wail away on “Brown Sugar,” and they’ll get that.
“If the people dig it, then I dig it. If the people wanna hear it, then I wanna play it. I don’t get tired of playing it,” he says, offering a stark contrast to some musicians who end up resenting their biggest hits. “They’re silly,” he says of those performers.
Of course, the big question is whether we’ll get another chance to see Keys play “Brown Sugar” onstage with Mick, Keith and the gang. Rumors have been swirling for a while about a Stones farewell tour that could take place in 2013. Keys hasn’t heard anything yet — he said he’ll get a call from Keith if and when it’s on — but he’s optimistic.
“I don’t really ask,” he says of a possible tour. “I hope there is. I can’t see ’em just going out without some sort of ‘Hi-yo, Silver, and see ya later.’ If I were a betting man, I might bet a dollar on it.”
Saturday at 8 p.m. (doors open at 6 p.m.) at the Howard Theatre, 620 T St. NW.
202-803-2899. www.thehowardtheatre.com. $30, $25 in advance.
For a sampling of songs Bobby Keys has played on, check out:
From “Sticky Fingers” (The Rolling Stones):
“Brown Sugar,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”
From “Exile on Main Street” (The Rolling Stones):
“Sweet Virginia,” “Rip This Joint,” “Rocks Off”
From “Walls and Bridges” (John Lennon):
“Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” “Going Down on Love”