Bobby Keys: The Cream Interview
For this year's Scene People Issue (out now!) I had the fortune of profiling legendary longtime Rolling Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys, who also blew on, like, every great sax-having rock album of the '70s. Seriously, check out his AMG credits. Shit's ridiculous. Not only can you read my profile on Keys here, but you can also read the fully transcribed Q&A of my interview with Keys below. And below that you can see some home (or rather office) video that Scene culture editor Steve Haruch captured of Keys blowing in the Sceneconference room at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning during the photo shoot for the piece.
Here, the brass-wielding Texas-to-Tennessee transplant candidly and hilariously opens up about his storied musical history, his storied history of debauched excesses while playing foil to best friend Keith Richards, his 20 years living in Nashville, his new band The Suffering Bastards — an ensemble including Nashville notables like Dan Baird, Mike Webb, Steve Gorman, Dean Tomasek and Mercy Lounge co-proprietor Chark Kinsolving, which plays the best cuts of the Keys-contributed canon — and his new autobiography Every Night's a Saturday Night: The Rock 'n' Roll Life of Legendary Sax Man Bobby Keys. Parnassus Books will host Keys for a signing on March 19. After that you can catch the band play a reception at Mercy Lounge.
Bobby Keys: [My book] is just about music. This is about nobody else but music.
Nashville Cream: Is it easy to understand why people are interested in that other stuff — the party stories?
BK: Well, not anymore, because it's been done to death to death to death. But there are still people that insist that, "Keith had his blood changed back in the '60s. Yeah, he got so fucked up he went to Transylvania and had [a full-body blood transfusion]."
NC: Yeah, everybody's heard that one.
BK: Yeah, and people still believe that crap! And it doesn't matter how many times you try to explain to them that it's a medical impossibility. You don't just drain it out one end and put it in the other.
NC: Let me make sure this thing is recording — I like to record it on two devices just in case one gets screwed up.
BK: Aha! You're a cautious man!
NC: I am, yeah. That's the thing about the Digital Age, it's like the click of a button or a battery dies or something and it goes away.
BK: Yeah, that's very frustrating because I'm not really very fully into the digital period yet. I'm still locked in analog, man.
NC: Yeah, these days you must record to digital though, right?
BK: I just play into the microphone. Where it goes after that is beyond me. [Laughs]
NC: Do you have any engineering or recording chops?
BK: No [laughs]. I really don't. I have never been the slightest bit interested. Well, I've been interested, but not enough to really — it just looks too complicated.
NC: Yeah, I feel the same way. I'm a drummer.
BK: Are you really?
BK: Cool, man! It's easier to talk to a musician.
NC: I hope so. It can have its advantages.
BK: Where are you from?
NC: I'm from Los Angeles originally.
BK: Hollywood! I lived out in Hollywood for a long time, back in the '60s. I lived in Hollywood, I lived near Griffith Park. I lived in Santa Monica, Malibu.
NC: Yeah, I grew up in that area — Santa Monica, Palisades. Didn't Ron Wood used to have a house around there?
BK: He's living in Mandeville Canyon. I've spent a lot of time over there at that place. Destroyed a lot of brain cells over there.
NC: [Laughs] As far as those more non-musical stories. How you feel about how you were represented in the Keith book?
BK: [Laughs] I really liked that book, man. You know, of all the stuff I've read about Keith — because he's a pretty interesting character — that was the Keith that I knew. The stuff I read in there, I said, "Alright, yeah. I was there, I saw that." A lot of that other stuff has been written by other people. I was there, and I never saw 90 percent of the stuff that has been ascribed to his actions. But I thought the book Life was very good.
NC: In having dealt with people who are that well known, whether it's John Lennon or Keith Richards, do you find that they become like fictional characters in the minds of a lot of people who never knew the real person?
BK: Yeah, it's their own concept of what information they've been given, usually by the press or newspapers, magazines and other people's interpretations. I've found — like with Keith — he's depicted as an embodiment of the black arts of rock 'n' roll. "By God, the man's a vampire," but it's so far away from the truth. He and I had a rollicking youth together on tour, on the road. Not all the time, but I don't look at Keith nearly the same way that other people do, and I really never have. To me, when I first saw Keith Richards, he reminded me of Buddy Holly. Just out of his energy and just something about him; he just had a different look in his eye. That's the first thing I noticed, then I noticed he could play guitar pretty damn good too.
NC: How did you first become associated with The Stones?
BK: The first record I played on was Let It Bleed. I was in the studio with a band I was working with at the time called Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. We had Leon Russell and Jim Keltner in the band, Lou Rita Coolidge, Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle, Jim Price and me. And we were in Elektra Studios recording, beginning work on the first Delaney & Bonnie album, Accept No Substitutes, and I just walked out of the studio and was walking down the hall and I ran into Jagger. I hadn't seen Mick in a long time; I met them originally when they first came to the States on their first tour. I was playing with a guy named Bobby Vee. But anyway, so I ran into Mick and he said, "Hey, is that you?" and I said, "Yeah, I believe it is, and it looks like you're probably you too." So he said, "Well, what are you doing?" I said, "Well, I'm in the studio. We're doing some recording." He said, "You got your horn?" I said, "Well, yeah," and he said, "Well, if you got a minute, come on down to our studio. We're working on some tracks, and there's a song we were talking about a horn solo on." The guy that was producing that album also produced Delaney & Bonnie Live on Tour album with Eric Clapton; Jimmy Miller was his name. So Jimmy knew me and Jim — Mick said, "What do you think?" and Jimmy said, "Oh great, yeah, bring him on down!" So I walked in and listened to the track, and Jimmy said, "You play here, and you stop playing here." So we went through it one time just to get a level, and then recorded it. That was the first track I played with them.
NC: And what track was it?
BK: A track called 'Live With Me'.
NC: Oh man, that's a classic.
BK: [laughs] They're all classics now! Hell, that was fifty years ago! Well, not quite fifty years ago actually, pretty damn close, but not quite.
NC: The Stones had maybe one of the greatest winning streaks of years and years of great records, and you've played with them every time I've seen the band, which has been since '94, and you've played with them on just about every live clip I've seen from the '70s on.
BK: First tour I did with them was in 1970. I missed one and a half tours. I was working with Joe Cocker, and I had committed myself to that before I knew they were doing what they were gonna do, what they did. And so I was sort of out for a while, and then they stopped touring for a while.
NC: Yeah, in between '81 and '89, right?
BK: Yeah, well I did the '81 tour with them, and after that they sort of went on hiatus for a while. Ronnie started doing his own thing, and later on we did The New Barbarians, which was with Keith and Ronnie and myself and some other significant folks.
NC: And you were in The X-pensive Winos too, right?
BK: Oh yeah! You kidding me? I loved that band. That band was like a real rock 'n' roll — well, The Stones are real rock 'n' roll band — but The Winos, there was no flash pots or exploding devices or any crap like that. It was just, "Go out on stage and play." And even the entrance on the stage was different. We'd go out with the stage dark and just kind of get in a circle and hunker down in the middle of the stage and discuss what the first couple of songs were gonna be. They'd bring the house lights up, and everybody would get out of this circle after we decided what we were gonna play, walk over to the instruments and start playing. Whereas with The Stones, every song has to be a particular tempo in order to be coordinated with all the visual stuff that goes on.
NC: Do The Stones play to a click live?
BK: Chuck Leavell is keeper of the click. He has a list of the songs, and there's a number of beats per minute out in the margin beside each song. And he sets his little click-o-meter to that — it's a metronome, actually [laughs], that's what it's called — and then he counts it off at that tempo. Which is good; it does maintain consistency, and of course it does help to keep the visuals coordinated with the music,
NC: I think that one question almost any musician would have as far as the experience: to play in literally the biggest band in the world for so long, is what is it like just doing the gigs? What's it like playing stadiums with The Stones?
BK: That's the most fun of all. The rest of it, like sitting around backstage, or — we go there early in the day, probably six to seven hours prior to the actual time we hit the stage and play just to do sound checks. Because the operation is so big now,there's such a large number of people involved, I guess they feel like they've got to have the musicians confined in one area so they can keep track of everybody. What was the question? [laughs]
NC: Well what's it like on stage?
BK: That's when the fun begins. As many times as I've played "Brown Sugar" and "Honky Tonk Woman" and all that, I never get tired of playing it. Because those guys — it's not treated like just another day at the office. There's just too much energy up there. Keith Richards don't fake nothing, Charlie don't fake nothing, none of them know how to fake stuff! They really don't.
NC: And is that what keeps them coming back to it?
BK: I would imagine so. It's a very euphoric feeling when you're up there playing, and you got all the people out there digging what you're doing, and you're digging what you're doing. Everything's — I mean that's when it's really fun. No phone to answer — you're playing, you're doing what you do. You're playing your instrument and you're playing with other people, your peers. Folks are making rock 'n' roll music, what can be wrong with that?
NC: Do you have a favorite song to play in The Stones repertoire?
BK: Yeah, I like to play "Can't You Hear Me Knocking".
NC: Alright, that's one of my favorites too. And I believe you've played that with Bobby Keys and the Suffering Bastards every time I've been to see you guys, too.
BK: Yeah. Yeah, well those guys — Dan and Chark and Mike and, hell, all those guys, Robert. They're all great musicians and I'm just lucky to [have them]. ... I did a thing for the Americana Festival here, and I met Chark at that. I was talking to him and I said, "Man, there's no room, no work around here for saxophone players. I need a band." And just through the course of conversation, Chark said maybe he could get some guys together and we'd see what happened. He did, and I really liked the result. The only problem is everybody plays in their other band, so it's kind of hard to coordinate a time when we're all available. Since my gig hasn't paid anybody a dime — I think the most anybody's made is ten or fifteen bucks [laughs]. The money's not a great inducement. We got some gigs coming up — we're coming to New York to play a couple of gigs. I understand we sold out one so we put another gig on.
NC: Oh yeah? New York City?
BK: Up in New York City! At a place called the Highline Ballroom.
NC: Now how long have you lived in Nashville?
BK: What year is it? [laughs]
AG: 2012, but it's only February, so ... .
BK: I guess probably about, off and on now, around 20 years, I suppose.
NC: And what's your experience been like here? What brought you to Nashville in the first place?
BK: Well, I came here from Miami Beach. I was down there to help Ronnie Wood put together his little nightclub enterprise that he had down in Miami, on the beach — Woody's on the Beach. And that sort of ran its course, and he left and everybody left. And I got bored, so I wanted to leave too. My wife's family lives in Albuquerque and I have family in New Mexico, and I didn't really want to go back there because there's not a lot of opportunity to do what I do in Albuquerque. I have some friends from Lubbock that live here in the Nashville area. Jerry Allison, who I've known all my life, he's the drummer for Buddy Holly and the Crickets. And Joe B. lived here too, the bass player. Anyways, there was a nest of Texas living here, so I decided to settle in. I only planned to stay for a couple weeks or a month. I just really like it, I like the people here. It's a graveyard for saxophone players.
NC: Is it more a graveyard here than elsewhere?
BK: Yeah, oh yeah. It's just that the saxophone is not that widely-used of an instrument in the music they record in this town, which used to be really good. I'm ain't too crazy about a lot of the stuff — I love George Jones and what I call real country. I'm an old fart now so country music's peak to me was in the '50s and '60s. But anyway, it doesn't matter what I think about country music.
NC: Do you do sessions for modern country stuff at all?
BK: My favorite session that I've done in Nashville, the one where I thought, "Well okay, I don't need to do anymore," was with George Jones. I played on one track, played baritone. Actually, the guy that was producing the track got in touch with me somehow to see if I could get in touch with Keith Richards. Keith is a great George Jones fan; he really likes George Jones. So I call Keith up and said, "Hey man, you wanna come down to Nashville and play on a couple tracks with George Jones?" and he said, "Yeah, hell yeah! Be right down." So they worked it out, and he came down here. We recorded out of Owen Bradley's barn. That was quite a trip for me, seeing George and Keith in the same room. They hit it off right away, although they were like two old dogs sort of walking around in a circle, seeing who was going to do what first. But that was really great. I really don't do many sessions in town. I did one for Trisha Yearwood, and I did one for somebody else. I do a little bit of stuff around here, but I gave up trying to promote saxophone in this neck of the woods.
NC: That's kind of interesting, because what brings a lot of people here is that they're — if they play pedal steel, they play guitar, they play whatever it is — they come here because of the studio culture. But if this is a graveyard for saxophone, you're kind of an anomaly as a professional musician in Nashville.
BK: Well I like to play golf, and there's a lot of good golf courses here. Like I said, I have a lot of good friends here. But this place is also not a very good place for live music. It's nothing like Austin is for me.
NC: Yeah. It's hard to get people out to shows in this town.
BK: It is, and also it's a buyers market. What bands are here, they're all looking for the same gigs, so you can't really make a living playing nightclubs in Nashville. I suppose you can: I suppose some people do, but I can't. I just live here because I like it.
NC: That's a pretty good reason. As far as what's going on now with the book. How did the book come about? And I hear there's a documentary too?
BK: Yeah, well the documentary is going to parallel the book. Just different periods of my life and the people I've played with. I really first started thinking about the book in van rides after the gigs. We'd be leaving the stadium, and the brass section had their own van and we shared it with the makeup girls. Usually after a gig you're pretty pumped up, and I'm a fairly vocal, animated guy anyway. Something would be mentioned, and I would go, "Oh, that reminds me of the day..." Blah blah blah, and I would go into the old warhorse rock 'n' roll stories of the '50s and '60s and '70s. And I've been around some pretty funny people, man. I've seen a lot of funny stuff done, and so I would tell these stories and everybody would be like, "Oh, that's great, man. You oughta write this stuff down." I kept saying, "Yeah, I'll do that someday." Finally, being a saxophone player in Nashville, you do run into income lapses. I actually started to write a book once a long time ago in the '80s and was assigned a writer that had no competence. She just wanted to write about the eccentricities and the extremes of rock 'n' roll and not about the music. I wanted to write about the music.
NC: Televisions out of windows and stuff like that?
BK: Right. So through a friend of mine here I met an attorney who had a friend that was a writer. And I got introduced to the writer, this guy Bill, Bill Ditenhafer. We met at Brown's Diner one afternoon to talk, and I went in with a lot of reservations. A lot of times, when you're interviewed, what you say is not exactly how it's represented or reproduced in a paper. I had a bad experience with a previous writer, so I wasn't real keen on doing it, but Bill was also a musician. He was a guitar player, and that helped a lot. You're talking to another musician and he knows the right kind of questions when you're talking about music. He was wanting to talk about the music and not talk about all the extremes and all the National Enquirer crap. So that's what we did; we just talked about music and what made me get interested in music and my influence. That was the story i wanted to tell, and I hope that's the story we told. I think it is; I didn't see anything in there I'm gonna get sued over.
NC: What are your favorite performances from records you've played on?
BK: Well, oh shoot, I don't know. There's been a lot of them, not every one a Maserati. Like I said, "Can't You Hear Me Knocking", I like that one, but I also like not just the solos, but there's some horn parts on some of the stuff we've done. I don't recall what they are right now.
NC: Did you arrange horn parts?
BK: On some I did. Jim Price did the majority of — like I can come up with a lick. Of course a lot of the horn lines we played with The Stones was stuff we'd played that was already being suggest by guitars.
NC: Like a call and response?
BK: Well also, like on "Bitch". It starts out [melody emulation], well that's just the horn line, you know. That's the guitar line, but we just took that line and just put a horn line on it. We take something that was already there and expand on it. When we started recording with The Stones, Jim and I did, there was only two of us. There still is only two of us [laughs], but in the horn section now there's actually five of us. Back then when we started there was only two of us, and so we had to play a slightly different style than you would expect a horn section to play. With a section with three or four horns, you've got room to play block chords and voiced parts. With Jim and I, as there was only two of us, we played a lot of stuff in octaves and in unison. We would go to voiced harmony parts on some sections like, well on a lot of stuff, but the main dominant line would generally be something done in unison.
NC: Right, for the power and the punch and all that?
BK: Yeah, because you're competing with some fellas that really like the sound of their guitars loud. It was fun doing it, because we lifted a lot of the stuff, a lot of the ideas we got from playing on horns, we took from Keith's guitar or just another element in the song.
NC: And Keith writes some of the catchiest, most iconic riffs. Does that make it easy to kind of play off of? What's that like, as a musician, to hear. How many of those really legendary riffs did you get to hear for the first time before the world got to hear them, and to know that that was going to be something that might stick in the consciousness of listeners for so many years?
BK: Well I wasn't around when they did "Satisfaction", which is probably one of the most iconic guitar opening riffs in rock 'n' roll. I was there for "Honky Tonk Women", which is pretty noticeable right off the bat, as is "Brown Sugar". Which is also one of my favorite solos; I mean that's been paying the rent for damn near forty years now. I have good memories of a lot of the stuff I've done with The Stones. Being in the studio with them has changed over the years, of course everything changes over the years. In the beginning, you could go to the studio and stay there for days and just record everything. It was always going to the studio and wondering, "What the hell is going to happen tonight?"
NC: And it's not like that now?
BK: Well I haven't really recorded with The Stones on a studio album in the past, hell, four or five albums I guess outside of the ones that they've released of live concerts. I don't know. They're going to be going back into the studio again, and I always put my two cents in and say, "Hey guys! Remember the hit records? I was on those!" [laughs]
NC: One question I really want to ask is even beyond The Stones stuff, because there's the John Lennon stuff and the George Harrison stuff and Joe Cocker stuff and Marvin Gaye. All these other records are still staples of radio — it's music that will be around forever. What's it like for you when you listen to classic rock and pop radio and you hear these songs come on one after the other — what's it like to have such a direct connection with them?
BK: Well, whenever I hear "What Gets You Thru the Night", I immediately got this picture of John. John was more fun to work this then I can tell you, man. He was a hell of a guy; he's a good friend. I lived next door to him England for a while, that's where we became pretty good friends, and carried one when he came to the States and I came to the States. Well, John gave me a call one time; he was working on Walls and Bridges, and asked me to come to New York to do the horns. So of course I got on the next plane and went to New York. I get there and John says, "Well, we've been doing all these tracks, and I've got all these horn players." He had the Brecker Brothers and Howard Johnson, all the heavyweights in New York. I don't read music.
NC: Oh really?
BK: Hell no [laughs]. All these guys, they can read — you could sling ink against a wall and they could read it. So I told John, "Hey man, these New York slickies are going to embarrass the hell out of your young Bob here." He said, "How is that?" and I said, "Because I don't read music." He said, "Well I don't read it either," and I said, "Well I really don't read it. Not actual notation." So he took out his acoustic guitar — we were in The Dakota — and he played through the songs, played through "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night." He said, "Okay, I want you to come in at the beginning, and then you got these solos in between these verses and things." So we went through it in his stairwell. "Well that was just a solo. Okay, I got the form of that." Then we went onto some other stuff; there was going to be some horn section stuff. He just hummed to me what he wanted. Even though the horn parts were written out, they were his idea, and it's amazing how much simpler the stuff is when you hear it than when you're looking at it trying to read it. If I hear something once, I can play it.
They put the music in front of me and I just stand there looking at it. "Well, I know that's an E and that's an F-sharp," but it's not my strong suit. Working with John — when we got to the studio, he had the guy go in and take all the charts off the guys' music stands, and he put the same chart that I had, which was just the staff with chord changes on it. I already knew what was supposed to be played there. Anyway, to bring this story to a point. I told John, "I'm going to look like an idiot because I don't read music," and he said, "Well I don't read it either." So he figured out a way, and he just went over the stuff with me to where instead of me going in there looking like a dumb bumpkin from podunk, I actually knew what I was talking about. I could tell these guys, "Well you play this here, and you play that there."
NC: I bet John Lennon was a pretty good guy to have on your side.
BK: He was a great guy, man! He was one of the funniest human beings I've ever known in my life, and a passionate man about his honest beliefs. He had some very strong convictions about what was right and what was wrong, and he was right. Everybody knows his feelings about the war and all that, and those were sincere feelings. Some people, they'll jump in line with some cause just to get their face in front of the camera. But John, he did it, he stuck with it. I never knew another man like that, that really — I guess you could compare him to Mohammed Ali, who gave up his title because of his beliefs.
NC: Were you around when Lennon was fighting the CIA and the FBI — when they were trying to deport him and all that?
BK: Oh hell yeah! In fact, in the Freedom of Information Act or whatever the hell it is, I finally read where Hoover had John ... I was around a lot during then. So it's fun to read my name, "Alright! I made the list; I'm a person of interest to the United States Government!"
NC: How old are you now? If you don't mind saying.
BK: What year is this? 2011?
NC: 2011, wait no, 2012!
BK: [Laughs] Well that makes me 68.
NC: Alright, and how long could you see yourself playing? And the band too, with The Stones, that's what everyone always wants to know. Everyone thinks every tour is the last tour.
BK: [laughs] I've been thinking that for the last ten tours. After '81, I didn't know if there would ever be another. The flesh is tired a little bit, but the spirit is still there.
NC: Do you think they band still plays as well as in the '70s? Or has it gotten better over the years?
BK: It does get better. You know, with all the whistles and bells that are on stage now — right now, at the height of music participation, there's fourteen players on stage. That's including four horns, three back up singers, extra keyboard player. The band — we still rehearse, they still go in every couple of months or six weeks prior to the gig. No one takes it for granted, I mean Charlie Watts. They're great players.
NC: Yeah, and Charlie has such a unique pocket.
BK: Yeah, and together on stage, they do something that is truly unique. That's why I think they're still around; they're honest about what they're doing. They're not just going through the motions like I understand some people do in their golden years. This band has never dropped a step as far as effort and conviction and honesty about doing what they do. They work their asses off. Work me out too, man, make me climb stairs.
NC: [laughs] Are you able to talk at all about what the plan is for this next tour?
BK: I don't know. I have absolutely no idea. I've heard different theories, but they're just theories. So I don't wanna say anything because I really do not know. I hope there is one; I really hope there is one.
NC: Having the book and the documentary coming out, is this your moment to step out and shine and say, "This is who I am," and not playing side man to someone else?
BK: I haven't really thought about it that much. I'm going to be me no matter — like I say, I'm an old dog, man, and I ain't gonna change my tricks now. I'm excited to have it come out; I'm curious to see what's going to happen with it, but I'm very guarded in thinking about anything as if I'll jinx it. The initial vibe from the publisher and the people that have read it and the people that have read it to review it are all very positive. So I hope people like it. It's not a book about the over-indulgences and all the extremes of rock 'n' roll. Hell, it's just a story about what I've done, basically, and the people that helped me do it.
NC: Do you find that it's sort of a snowball effect, like meeting Mick by chance in the studio, and that turning into a long relationship?
BK: It's all as unrehearsed as a hiccup too. This is not the result of any grand design or any grand plan that was laid out [laughs]. One thing led to another, just being in the right place at the right time and having a little ability to back it up.
NC: How would you describe your playing style?
BK: I play a lot like a guitar player and a harmonica player. Levon Helm showed me a lot of stuff when we were living together out in California in the '60s. We had a little band together for a while: Jesse Ed Davis and Jimmy Markum and Levon and myself. Cale played in it for some time.
NC: Oh wow. What kind of stuff would Levon teach you?
BK: Well, just listening to Little Walter and listening to harmonica players. Since I was the only saxophone player in the band, didn't make much sense to try to play horn songs in Jimmy Reed songs. Lightnin' Hopkins and Little Walter — I adapted a lot of my style from harmonica solos.
NC: Having played with both, what's the difference between how it feels playing to Levon's pocket verses playing to Charlie Watts' pocket? As far as two of the most distinctive drummers when it comes to feel.
BK: Well, Charlie Watts is the best rock 'n' roll drummer I've every played with in my life. He's the drummer in a band I've ever played with. Levon is — when I say the best, I mean they're all right there neck and neck. I've had the good fortune to play with some really good drummers: Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, Charlie Watts, Levon. The thing is, with Levon, when we first started playing together we played these little joints in California, in Los Angeles. We were just playing blues stuff, just shuffles, but Levon I've noticed — and this is true for southern drummers, man — they're always laid back. I love that feel! It's never on top of the beat, always sucking it down just a little bit. Now Charlie, Charlie is an accompanist. I've noticed Charlie and Keith playing together. Charlie, he's got one tom tom, one bass drum, one snare drum, one floor tom tom, and two cymbals. Charlie has his own style. Like when he hits his snare drum, he never hits his high hat. I've never seen another drummer with his style.
NC: Have you ever asked him what that's about — the snare/hi-hit thing?
BK: No [laughs]. I don't care, it sounds good and it works. Like I said, I've just been lucky to play with some really good drummers, and it's hard to line them up 1, 2, 3, because they're all number 1's as far as I'm concerned.
NC: Do you feel like you play your best with The Stones as far as how the band fits together as musicians?
BK: Yeah, and the reason for that is the rhythm section, is Keith and Charlie. That's where the heart and soul of that band comes from to me musically. Mick sings and runs around and does all that really nice, keeps the folks entertained. But musically — now I'll tell you something, Mick Jagger's a hell of a good harmonica player himsellf. He really is; that boy has surprised me. Not that I'm an authority on harmonica players, but I've been around some. Butterfield and I used to hang out a lot, and we got to be good friends. Paul Butterfield. He was an extraordinary harp player. But Mick, that boy can sing country music. You know the song "Far Away Eyes"?
NC: Oh yeah.
BK: I love hearing him do it on stage. On stage he does an even better version than the record. We were in Texas, I guess it was Austin the last time he did it. I think that song evoked more appreciation from the audience than "Satisfaction" or some of the other stuff. Yeah, Mick is underrated, I think, in some areas as a musician.
NC: Is that because he's so well-known as a stage performer and as a frontman persona?
BK: Yeah, he plays guitar too. I don't know how well he plays; plays better than I do [laughs].
NC: Has there ever been any really funny train wreck moments on stage with The Stones?
BK: Yeah, there have been. One time in particular I remember, and this goes back to the song "Can't You Hear Me Knocking". When I first started touring with The Stones, and this would have been the first tour with them; we played in England, Ireland, Scotland. Anyway, we'd just recorded "Can't You Hear Me Knocking". What album is that from, Sticky Fingers?
NC: Yeah, Sticky Fingers.
BK: Yeah, and we were going out to do the first promotional tour of the songs from that album, and this was back when The Stones didn't overly rehearse for a gig. The attitude was like, "Hell, we wrote 'em, we can play 'em." And they could.
NC: So you had to see a later show on the tour to see the band in top form?
BK: Yeah, so it was kind of like, "Well hell, we wrote 'em, we can play 'em. We'll just get up and play 'em." So we're gonna do "Can't You Hear Me Knocking", and I'm as nervous as a ruptured duck in a hailstorm because this is one of the first solos I've got to play with these guys on stage. Well we get into it, and it's going along okay. But on the record when it was done on the studio, that whole second part to the song, that instrumental part, wasn't really planned to go into the song when it was recorded. That just kind of continued on spontaneously; I wasn't even supposed to play on the record. I didn't play on the vocal part of the song, but when they started into that second part I was just sitting out there and had my horn sitting in the stand. I picked up and said, "Hey, this sounds good. I like the last little Latin kind of vibe." So I picked my horn up and looked around — nobody else was playing — so I started playing. I carried on for a while, then Mick Taylor took over and played for a little while, and I came back in and played for a little bit, then we ended the song. I thought, "Wow, that was really fun. That's cool." Then I believe Mick said, "Well that's cool, but it's not going to be on the record." "Oh God. Once again, I'm shot down."
NC: That's incredible. For someone like me, just as an observer, to think that song, or at least that section on that song, could have ended up not making that record — that's unbelievable to me.
BK: Well, it wasn't left off. They put it on. So when we get ready to go out and play, to do the promotional tour for that album, Mick called that song out and we started, got through the first part OK, and then started into the instrumental section and the first part of that went OK, although I was trying to remember what the hell I'd played the first time, and I can't think and play at the same time. [Laughs] It just doesn't work well for me. And apparently other folks in the band were having the same sort of, like, "What the hell are we gonna do? What comes after this?" And so I struggled through my part until I finally got Mick Taylor's attention and said, "Take it over, man. I'm out of gas! Do somethin'." So he started playing and by this point people in the band were just kind of looking at each other realizing, "You know what, we never rehearsed an ending for this thing." [Laughs] You know? "How are we gonna end it?!" And so it just kind of petered out, man. It just fell apart. It was the only time I've been onstage with The Stones when the song just kind of, died.
NC: And did the crowd just kind of sit there, confused. Or did they clap and cheer like it was great?
BK: [Laughs] Well I don't remember, man. I don't remember thinkin' anything except, "Wow, that was really, really unexpected." You know, to go from such a high intensity to where people just stop playing. That's just one moment that I remember.
NC: Now when it comes to living in Nashville, how would you describe your lifestyle here? Are there favorite restaurants you have? Favorite musicians to play with?
BK: Well, for about the first 10 or 12 years I was here I didn't make much of an effort to — outside of the people I knew here from Texas — I didn't really get out and socialize. I didn't know where to go to get into anything. I was told by a few people how closely knit the recording community was here and that it was damn near impossible to break into the gig, you damn near had to wait until somebody died to get in [laughs]. And I said, "Well, I don't really feel like going around passing out cards and glad handing everybody and going through the social politics," so I didn't. And so consequently I didn't work [laughs]. But I didn't care so much. You know, I still had income comin' in from The Stones and still do. So what I got into was playin' golf and reacquainting myself with my childhood passion, which is model airplanes. So that's what I do a lot of now — I fly remote-controlled planes. It's easier than playing golf. I fly better than I play golf.
NC: Have you noticed a change in the city at all since you've been here?
BK: It's grown out, man. The change has been physical, to me. Of course, every place has changed. When you get to be as old as I am and you remember how things were in the '50s and '60s, it ain't nothing like it was in the '50s and '60s anymore.
NC: Do you remember the first time you ever came here?
BK: I remember the first time I came here was to play with The Rolling Stones in 1972 at — I don't remember where it was but I remember it was really hot — I think it was Nashville Auditorium.
NC: Municipal Auditorium?
BK: I think so. I'm not positive. But I know that it was extremely hot and Stevie Wonder was here — he opened up the tour for us.
NC: And he would play with you guys sometimes, right?
BK: Yeah. He did a couple times. He'd come up and play on "Satisfaction." But I didn't get a chance to see much of Nashville that first time because right after the concert Keith and I jumped on the Atlantic Records corporate jet and went over to The Virgin Islands. We'd had a break in the action for a couple days after the Nashville concert. And I was wanting to stick around but Keith says, "Ahhh, let's go! We've tequila waitin' for us and a palm tree!" So off we went.
NC: [Laughs] That's great. So now what's the plan with the book?
BK: Well, the plan is we're gonna do a book release party here at Parnassus in Green Hills and then there's gonna be a reception at The Mercy Lounge which my band — well, not my band, THE band that we all play in collectively known as The Suffering Bastards — will be performing. And then we've got some other places we're going to — Memphis, California, New York and some places in Mississippi, which I'm looking forward to.
NC: And are these mainly club gigs?
BK: These are selling my book gigs! They are in conjunction with book signing deals. You know, "Come buy the book and I'll play you a tune."
NC: So the band is essentially a promotional vehicle for the book?
BK: Yeah. And for ourselves too. You know, we're a pretty good band, although we're a hybrid band made up of a bunch of other guys from other bands. We're losing our singer for a gig and so we've got Billy Burnette, who sang with Jefferson Starship — he's gonna sit in for awhile. It's like I say, it's a band where [the lineup] is not set in stone. You know, it's hard to keep a band together unless you've got gigs.
NC: Tell me about the difference between being in a situation like keeping a band together playing club gigs vs. playing stadiums with the rock's most established entity?
BK: Well there's a big difference, man [laughs]. There's a giant difference, in all aspects of it, from the money, to the venues that you play. Like with The Stones, I don't have to do anything except show for the gig. There's people that pack my luggage, that carry my horn, that put my horn together, cut my hair, powder my nose. I don't have to do damn thing except physically be present and in some sort of condition to play the songs.
NC: And if you wanted, would they carry you to the stage?
BK: Well, I haven't pushed it to that extent yet. Although I have made them take me to the stage in a golf cart all the time [laughs]. But the fun of playing with The Suffering Bastards is it's like a throwback to the early garage-band days, you know? Except we're all older now. It's great. It kinda keeps you fresh.
NC: Is there any difference in the degree of nervousness between playing in a stadium vs. playing in a club?
BK: No. In fact, I've gone to sleep backstage in the middle of a Stones show [laughs]. I really have. Not because I stayed up the night before, just because I don't play on every song, so I'll put my head down and start listening to the band and I'll forget that I'm playing in the band. And then I'll hear the opening strains to "Brown Sugar" or my assistant will come up and tap me on the shoulder and say, "Hey Bobby, you're on this one! Get your horn!" So when I'm not playing I'm backstage. I've got my own little area back there with a desk and a little TV set, a telephone, a fan or a heater depending upon whatever the climate may be and fellow that goes and gets me beer and cokes and brings me towels and puts my saxophone away for me. You don't get that kind of service here at the old Mercy Lounge. But then, it's a different deal. I love playing there.
NC: Do watch The Stones gigs often on the songs where you're not playing?
BK: I'm backstage. I have my own little area back there. I usually roll up a couple of joints, sit back there, and I've got my bottle of wine or bottle of Jack. I just back there and I watch them. I've got a monitor so I can watch them on TV. So I just sit back and fire up a joint, have a glass of wine and watch the band onstage. And I've got a set list tacked up there on the wall next to my little area and I've got a guy who makes sure that I'm aware of when I'm supposed to be and where I'm supposed to be. So it's dead easy, man [laughs].
NC: And before you said you were married ...
BK: I'm very much married.
NC: Do you have kids, too?
BK: They're all grown. It's just my wife Holly and my dog JJ. And they are known as my herd of turtles. They are the thundering herd of Turtles — slower than molasses in a snow storm.
NC: Is that a Texas simile?
BK: [Laughs] Well, it's like the name of my book — Every Night's a Saturday Night. [And] every day is a Sunday. I know I've been wrong before but I'm gonna try it one. More. Time.
NC: Do you ever think about going back to Texas?
BK: Yes, I come back to Texas. I've got a friend back there, a guy named Joe Ely, who I enjoy very much playing with. I lived in Austin for a while. I prefer living out here because there actually is more work here [laughs] than in Austin. But I like Austin. I like the food in Austin. I'm a Texan, you know? But I'm a transplant of Texas, I'm here in Tennessee. So I'm a Texassean.