MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Saxophonist Bobby Keys was still a teenager when he started playing with his fellow Texan Buddy Holly and pop star Bobby Vee. Later, he joined up with the Rolling Stones. And for more than 40 years, Bobby Keys' powerful sax was a key part of their sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROWN SUGAR")
BLOCK: Bobby Keys died today at his home in Franklin, Tennessee. He was 70 years old. Our music critic Tom Moon joins me now. And, Tom, we're listing to the 1971 Rolling Stones song "Brown Sugar." Hard to imagine this song without that sax solo, I think.
TOM MOON, BYLINE: That's right. It's one of those things where when you really pay attention, you hear somebody that's just tearing their heart out and playing so hard. And people who saw the Stones live remember that about him. He was a master of intensity. He really brought it all the time. You felt like he believed in everything he was playing.
BLOCK: Tom, I mentioned that Bobby Keys started out as a teenager playing with Buddy Holly. And it sounds like when he first heard Buddy Holly play, that was it for him. He was hooked on that sound.
MOON: Yeah. It was a galvanic moment. And he talks about touring around on a bus, being part of a review with five or six acts, playing gymnasiums. And, you know, most people would not have thought that was a romantic life, but he loved it. You know, something else - he's from Texas, right? And Texas is a very important place in the saxophone world, where the jazz players all play tons of notes and stuff. There's a tradition of saxophone playing that comes from Texas that is all about raw urgency. It's all about the blues. It's very elemental kind of playing, and he was part of that.
BLOCK: And, apart from those decades with the Rolling Stones, we should mention that Bobby Keys played with all sorts of musicians over the years - Warren Zevon, Cheryl Crow, John Lennon, all sorts of folks.
MOON: Yeah. That's right. He was a real journeyman, session musician. He was involved, though, in a lot of really important projects, including a lot of the John Lennon solo stuff. He was on George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass." He plays this great solo on "Whatever Gets You Through The Night," which was John Lennon's biggest solo hit.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHATEVER GETS YOU THROUGH THE NIGHT")
JOHN LENNON: (Singing) Whatever gets you through the night.
MOON: He's part of this tradition of musicians that everyone's heard, but people don't really know who he was, kind of. He was known to musicians and respected by the music world. And, you know, if you stop somebody on the street and said, who's that playing saxophone on "Brown Sugar?" They probably couldn't tell you.
BLOCK: Music critic Tom Moon talking about rock 'n roll sax player Bobby Keys, who was playing that solo on "Brown Sugar." Bobby Keyes died today at age 70. Tom, thanks so much.
MOON: Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHATEVER GETS YOU THROUGH THE NIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.