They were never as widely known as the people they played with, but the recent loss of Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan marks a sad week for rock and roll fans.
Bobby Keys was a saxophone player out of Texas who had played with everyone from Little Eva to Little Anthony and the Imperials. He met the Rolling Stones while they were on their first tour of America and became friends with the band, especially Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. He was primarily a session player, but in 1969 he became an unofficial Rolling Stone when he played the sax solo on Let It Bleed‘s “Live With Me”. He was Keith’s sax player of choice afterwards, adding an extra dimension of musicality to the band’s extraordinary string of albums in the early Seventies. When people think of the classic Rolling Stones sound, Bobby Keys is an integral part of that mix.
He toured with the band throughout the rest of his life while also playing sessions for rock’s royalty. The sax on John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through The Night”? The Faces’s “Had Me A Real Good Time”? George Harrison’s epic All Things Must Pass? Joe Cocker’s raucous Mad Dogs and Englishmen? These, and countless others, were improved by Bobby Keys. He played the sax with the soul of a jazz musician but the heart of a bluesman and the muscle of a rock star. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that most Stones fans have never even heard of the man, though it was the Stones with whom he was most closely associated. But any fans of rock music, and Stones fans in particular, have grooved to the music he made.
And if losing Bobby Keys wasn’t enough of a hit to the Rolling Stones camp, news yesterday announced the death of the great Ian McLagan. Mac was probably better-known than Keys because in addition to his session and tour work with the Rolling Stones, Mac was also an essential ingredient in two legendary bands that shared a name and personnel. Ian McLagan was the keyboard player for the Small Faces in the 1960s, and provided exemplary work on their classic albums (he also wrote and sang one of my favorites, “Up the Wooden Hills to Bedfordshire”). After singer Steve Marriott left, McLagan stayed when the Small Faces recruited Rod Stewart and Ron Wood and changed their name to Faces, and their sound from dreamy psych pop to raw blues rock. Mac’s piano playing was always a highlight of the band. He played broad boogie woogie, swirling psychedelia, and even the prominent electric keyboards on the Stones’s first excursion into disco, “Miss You”. He played sessions for everyone from Bob Dylan to Paul Westerberg, as well as releasing several solo albums. He also wrote one of the great rock autobiographies: All the Rage: A Riotous Romp Through Rock and Roll History. The rock and roll universe is a little dimmer now.