Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan: Two Days, Two Greats Gone

Locks of love: The late great Ian MacLagan photographed with the author this past September
Locks of love: The late great Ian MacLagan photographed with the author this past September
Photo by Alisa Beth Cherry

Today, lovers of rock and roll all across the globe are engulfed in grief at the loss of two legends. Bobby Keys, the man whose brilliant sax solo ignited the classic "Brown Sugar" and so many other iconic anthems, passed away from cirrhosis on Tuesday. Then, as if fate were insistent on inflicting a one-two punch, the news of the death of Ian McLagan, an essential member of the Small Faces and the Faces came on Wednesday.

It's devastating, their sudden departures, the loss to the world of music, the spirited personalities that illuminated so many lives through their talents. It's devastating, depressing, and too much to take in. Great music is immortal. Alas, its champions are not.

Both men shared similar resumes. Each played with the Rolling Stones, Keys for more than 40 years, McLagan on occasion. Both contributed to the golden age of '60s and '70s rock, when purity and substance reigned in rock. Neither was really known as a front man, but both were rock stars regardless, whether due to indiscriminate indulgence, perfect posturing, an edgy attitude or simply their solid support. It's safe to say that these two were the real deal. Even when they approached their seventies -- Keys was 70, McLagan 69 -- their gray hair, wrinkles and a well worn visages couldn't mask their thriving spirits.

Keys' association with the Stones and before that, the great Buddy Holly, gives him superstar credentials. And while he only released two solo albums, his sax playing also appeared on recordings by John Lennon, George Harrison, Marvin Gaye, Warren Zevon, Chuck Berry, Joe Cocker, and literally dozens more. He was weened on rock and roll from an early age, but it was with the Stones that he experienced its yin and yang, fortune and fame, along with the inevitable excesses.

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I actually met Bobby Keys twice, albeit briefly. Once when I lived in the Virgin Islands and I happened to spy him and Charlie Watts walking down the capitol city of Charlotte Amalie's main street on a Saturday morning -- two literal exiles on Main Street. It was during a one day break in the Stones' '72 tour.

It's a story I've repeated on numerous occasions. I jumped out of my dad's car and ran back to where I saw them, finally catching up with the pair when they walked out of a local gift shop. Watts was patient and amiable, but Keys, his companion, seemed anxious to give me the brush off so they could continue on their way. It was not a pleasant first impression.

Then in the mid '90s, I caught Keys with an ad hoc band consisting of other Stones expatriates, among them guitarist Mick Taylor and the late and legendary keyboard whiz Nicky Hopkins. They played a low-key gig in a long gone venue in what's now the Shops of Town and Country in Kendall. A superstar jam in the most unassuming of environs. Apparently Keys had a soft spot for South Florida. He was also the musical director at Ronnie Woods' defunct club Woody's in South Beach.

Keys also contributed to Long Player, one of the better albums by the Faces. Then again, the Faces were never known for polished performances. It was the ramshackle live shows and sloppy, if satisfying, recorded work that endeared them to their devotees. Before that, they were the Small Faces, whose diminutive stature made their name a literal description in every sense.

It was singer Steve Marriott's combustible vocals and McLagan's signature keyboards that ignited such signature songs as "Itchycoo Park," "Tin Soldier," "Song of the Baker," and "Afterglow," and helped them rival the Kinks and the Who among Britain's most notable troopers in the latter stages of the British Invasion.

With the Faces' breakup after the departure of Rod Stewart, Mac, as he came to be known, kept busy as a sideman and session player, aligning himself with his own remarkable roster, one that included Stewart, Springsteen, Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Frank Black, Billy Bragg, and a new super group of sorts, the Empty Hearts.

As a fan of the Faces, Small and otherwise, I idolized MacLagan and hoped one day to go to Austin where he resided and held court as part of a regular club residency. That never happened, but I did get to interview him on the occasion of the release of last year's Small Faces box set, Here Come the Nice.

Needless to say, that was a thrill, one that left me nearly speechless. But the greatest joy was my meeting him at the Americana Festival in Nashville a mere three months ago. I was able to see him perform at the helm of his beloved Bump Band during an informal outdoor gig at a local record store. Afterwards, I went up to him, introduced myself, and dropped the name of a mutual acquaintance in hopes it would spark some recognition. It seemed to, or at least he made it appear that way. We took the obligatory photo and again, I was in awe. I still get that way when I meet my heroes, but why not? As the Lovin' Spoonful once said, "The magic's in the music and the music's in me."

Some of that magic's gone now, at least in our physical world. But in music and memory, both men will forever live on. Gone, gone, but not forgotten. Mortality rules. And yet, one has to ask, why did it have to prove that point in such rapid succession?

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