a 12-song tribute to tenor saxophonist bobby keys
In fourth grade, my classmates and I were able to choose (you’ll soon learn why I use that term lightly) the instrument we’d learn to play for the school band. The decision was an easy one for me — the drums. Sure, I’d been taking piano lessons for five years, but I wanted to rock like Keith Moon and John Bonham.
Mr. C., the crabbiest music teacher on the planet, stomped on that plan with these four little words: “Drums are for boys.” I’ll spare you the whole unbelievable-even-in-1978 aspect of that statement and also fast forward beyond Mr. C’s “Brass is for boys. Woodwinds are for girls.” response to my second choice, the trombone. (He didn’t seem to care that my mom had been a trombonist at the very same school decades before.)
And so, a clarinetist was born. My reluctance faded as I became a Benny Goodman fan. In junior high, I was asked to join the high school jazz/rock ensemble, but my clarinet was not invited. What they needed was a tenor saxophonist. Since the fingering is the same, the director asked me to put down my clarinet and start slinging a sax.
Summer of 1981 blockbuster hits (a.k.a. “The Summer of the Sax Solo”) were still fresh in my mind, and even though I didn’t know the saxophonist’s names, Men at Work’s Greg Ham had been taking me Down Under in “Who Can It Be Now”, and I’d played air saxophone along with Junior Walker’s “Urgent” wail in Foreigner’s hit.
But it was Bobby Keys who made me jump at the chance to learn the saxophone. I’d been listening to STICKY FINGERS since I could remember and loved grooving to “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and “Brown Sugar.” Reading his obituary in today’s New York Times, I learned that Keys didn’t choose the saxophone either. When a baseball injury kept him from trying out for football, he decided to join the band. Keys said, “And the only instrument they had left, the absolute last instrument available, was an old baritone saxophone, which I had no idea how to even put my lips on.”
Unlike me, Keys was a natural who self-taught his way into a 40-year career as a professional musician (most often a tenor saxophonist) and a legendary embodiment of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle.
Thanks for four decades of music, Bobby . . . and for being the inspiration I needed when the saxophone chose me.
Bobby Keys photo credit: Michael Putland/ Getty Images