Saxophonist Bobby Keys Dies at 70

Estate Of Keith Morris/Redferns
Bobby Keys playing saxophone in Command Studios in 1971. 

Bobby Keys, the Texas-born tenor saxophonist whose bold and bluesy sound made him the single most vital auxiliary member of the Rolling Stones from the 1970s forward, died Dec. 2 at his home in Franklin, Tenn. He was 70.

His family confirmed the death on Facebook without giving a cause. He had been fighting cirrhosis.

The Rolling Stones tweeted that they “are devastated by the loss of their very dear friend and legendary saxophone player, Bobby Keys... Bobby made a unique musical contribution to the band since the 1960's. He will be greatly missed.

With a uniquely powerful sound that was more rock 'n' roll than R&B, Keys made a name for himself first with his solo on Dion's “The Wanderer” in 1961 which led to more studio work, most of it uncredited. In the 1970s, he became a go-to saxophonist for British rock royalty, performing on the Rolling Stones hits “Brown Sugar” and “Tumbling Dice,” touring with Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen entourage, recording with John Lennon, Eric Clapton and as a member of the Plastic Ono Band. Stateside, he would record with Harry Nilsson, Warren Zevon, Sheryl Crow and others.

His career began in his teen years on tours with Buddy Holly, Bobby Vee and Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars. He befriended Keith Richards, with whom he shares the birthdate of Dec. 18, and Mick Jagger in 1964, though it would not be until 1969 that he would appear on a Rolling Stones album. Richards, in his book “Life,” called Keys his closest pal. “A soul of rock and roll, a solid man, also a depraved maniac,” wrote Richards, who employed Keys on his solo projects as well.

In a statement,  Richards wrote, "I have lost the largest pal in the world and I can't express the sadness I feel although Bobby would tell me to cheer up. My condolences to all that knew him and his love of music."

Their friendship and musical collaborations would span more than four decades: Keys played on all of the Stones albums from 1969's Let It Bleed to 1974's It's Only Rock 'n' Roll and performed with band on nearly every tour from 1970 forward including the recent “14 On Fire” tour. He stopped touring with the band in October.

Keys released two solo albums, a self-titled instrumental album that featured Ringo Starr, George Harrison and Clapton, and “Gimme the Key, which Starr released on his Ring O'Records in 1975. In recent years, he has led the band the Suffering Bastards with Dan Baird of Georgia Satellites and other rock veterans.

Keys wrote his autobiography Every Night's a Saturday Night, which was published in 2012.

In lieu or flowers and gifts, the family asks that contributions be made to St Jude's Children Research Hospital and The Humane Society in his honor.