If you knew me in high school, you would have known that for years I was a middling saxophone player in the school band. I was actually first chair of my section for a while—but only because I was the only tenor sax player in the band.
I picked up saxophone in fourth grade because I thought it was undisputedly the coolest of the band instruments. That was due, in large part, to the fact that I heard it on the oldies station much more than any other instrument available to me at the time. When I was still learning the instrument, I looked up to big names like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, who dazzled me with their chromatic runs and effortless command of their horns. As I got older and realized that level of playing was beyond me, I found myself a little discouraged. Did I have to be able to play like those guys to be good?
I found my answer by listening to different players in different sub-genres of jazz (Stan Getz, of course), but also by remembering the type of saxophone that got me interested in the first place. And given my growing infatuation with The Rolling Stones, that increasingly meant I was listening to one player: Bobby Keys.
He was a fixture on the Stones’ best albums, providing a sound that kept the band rooted in the jump blues that birthed rock & roll. While other groups moved towards increasingly longer guitar solos, the Stones realized that letting Bobby blat to his heart’s content was a hip move.
His best work was arguably on 1971’s Sticky Fingers. The solo on “Brown Sugar” would have been enough to cement his place on the rock & roll saxophone podium, but I never thought it was his best. That honor goes to “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” which may provide the longest Bobby Keys solo in the Stones catalogue—approximately 1:40 in length.
It’s here that a listener gets a clear idea of what kind of player Keys really was. This solo marks Keys as a true musician and integral member of the band rather than a sideman brought it for bits of sonic texture. He doesn’t play anything over-the-moon in terms of technique, but he plays with a great feel (the opening trills at 2:59-3:07), and makes some good harmonic choices to add tension, rather than the relatively straightforward licks in “Brown Sugar.”
No matter what he plays, Keys always retains that signature raunchy tone. That’s what I thought saxophone was supposed to sound like as a kid—and it took me years to figure out that mine didn’t sound that way partly because I wasn’t using the right mouthpiece.
That ragged tone is so important to the composition because it ties the overdriven, distorted first half of the song to the much mellower jam in the song’s jazz-tinged second half. I don’t think anyone realized it at the time, but it’s because the saxophone had a foot in both worlds, the rock and the jazz, that allowed it to bridge that sonic gap. The second half of the song, you see, was never supposed to be kept or even recorded—it was a spontaneous studio jam (or so legend has it). It might be a bit much to say that Bobby Keys’ sax solo is what made the second half of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” work, but I don’t think it’s far off.
Ultimately, I haven’t played much sax in the last five years—guitar is a much more economical instrument and a more enjoyable one to play by yourself—but news of Keys’ death was still a bit of a blow. For me, he represented the same thing that punk-pop bands meant to me when I started playing guitar: that you didn’t have to be the best to sound the best.