Gimme the Keys: Tenor sax ace (and longtime Rolling Stones lieutenant) Bobby Keys celebrates his 70th birthday — a milestone shared by none other than Keith Richards — with an appearance at the Count Basie Theatre’s FIFTY LICKS concert.
By TOM CHESEK
The first time that Marc Ribler assembled the All-Shore project known as The Fifty Licks Band, it was the eve of a pretty momentous occasion — the 50th anniversary of the debut gig, by a group then going under the name The Rollin’ Stones.
When the Billboard-charting songsmith, commercial jingle composer, and benefit-bash bandleader re-convenes his jukebox Justice League this Wednesday, it will be in honor of a milestone that might conceivably call for twenty more licks. December 18 not only marks the 70th birthday of the irrepressible Keith Richards, but a big Number 70 as well for a man who’s been a cornerstone of the band’s extended family since 1969 — tenor saxophone ace Bobby Keys.
The Texas-born Keys, who’s maintained his end of a forty-year “ax and sax” dialogue with partner (in music and, occasionally, mayhem) Richards, will be spending his special day at the Count Basie Theatre. He’ll be appearing with Ribler and company as the very special guest in an 8 pm event that producer Tony Pallagrosi sums up as “a much different experience than seeing a bar band do a bunch of Stones covers…this really is Stones music, played the way that the Stones play it.”
A legendary concert promoter (the original Warped Tour, and the star-studded Light of Day benefits) club manager (Starland Ballroom, Fastlane) and a former member of the Asbury Jukes, Pallagrosi approaches the December 18 project as a self-described “HUGE Stones fan” — even as he busies himself with preparations for the 2014 Light of Day events unfolding in Asbury Park this January. The opportunity to involve Keys in the project — in addition to one or two potential “surprises” to be revealed — took precedence over such trifles as holiday shopping mall excursions, however, and the ongoing partnership with Ribler finds the Fifty Licks producer secure in the knowledge that all matters musical reside in the best of hands.
“Marc and I had talked about doing a project together,” says Pallagrosi. “He’s a wonderful musician…for a project like this, you need someone who has the respect of his peers, and Marc is that kind of a musician.”
A quick scan of the evening’s roster suggests that Ribler and Pallagrosi must each possess a Rolodex the size of The Price Is Right‘s Big Wheel. There are Jersey Shore/ Asbury Park headliners in the house, both veterans (Lance Larson, Sandy Mack) and recent vintage (Eryn Shewell). There are Brit transplants (James Maddock, Graham Maby), plus members of the Jukes (Jeff Kazee), The Fab Faux (Jack Petruzelli, Rich Pagano) and Clarence Clemons’ Red Bank Rockers (JT Bowen). There are players who’ve shared the studio and the stage with Jon Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Michael Bolton, Levon Helm, Peter Gabriel, Patti Smith and, of course, The Boss.
And then there’s Bobby Keys, the sort of sought-after session ace who’s been called upon by everyone from Streisand to Skynyrd — that’s him on Dion’s “The Wanderer;” on John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” and on records by Eric Clapton, BB King, Etta James, Marvin Gaye. Still, it’s his years as “THE Stones sideman” that define him — a tenure that began with the album Let It Bleed. For the Stones, it was the start of an interlude that saw the death of Brian Jones and the arrival of Mick Taylor; the establishment of their own record label, and an increased collaboration with American musicians like Gram Parsons, Billy Preston and Ry Cooder.
For Keys, it was a chance to shine on classic cuts like “Brown Sugar,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” and “Happy” — as well as a friendship with Richards that led to such behavior as a famous hotel TV-tossing incident, stories of bathing in champagne, and, eventually, a tendency for missing shows that resulted in a long exile from the band’s tours (these and other tales from the road are detailed in his 2012 memoir, Every Night’s a Saturday Night).
Expect those Keys classics as part of Wednesday’s musical menu, along with a cavalcade of Stones hot-rocks from the 1960s (“Under My Thumb,” “Out of Time,” “Get Off My Cloud”), 1970s (“Tumbling Dice,” “Beast of Burden,” “Wild Horses”) and beyond. It’s all about channeling the essence of an entity about which Pallagrosi asserts, “no band plays rock and roll the way they do…there’s a certain mindset that goes into the chords; the intertwining of the guitars. We hope to capture that nuance; that sense of space.”
“When punk rock happened, Keith reasserted himself as the original punk…and the band showed ’em all who the bosses really were,” says Pallagrosi of the rock institution that’s assimilated influences of reggae, blues, Motown R&B and disco into their signature sound — adding with a laugh, “they feed off their environment…they suck the life out of ’em, and they split!”
Take it here to reserve tickets for Wednesday’s 50 Licks concert ($20 to $45, with a $99 VIP option that includes a meet ‘n greet with the artsts) — and here for the next Pallagrosi-produced Summer of Love Concert in March 2014, with Glen Burtnik and friends celebrating the 45th anniversary of Woodstock.