BOBBY KEYES: A MASTER OF HIS CRAFT
by Julie Dougherty; photo by Dawn Kingston
It’s hard not to know who Bobby Keyes is, unless you’ve lived under a musical rock for the past thirty-plus years. He is a master guitar-player. He is also a prolific songwriter, producer, and recording engineer. Probably his most cherished role though is that of dad to his eight-year old son, Django, a role that came a bit later in life (he was fifty when Django was born). Being a father has changed his whole focus. He once heard that being without children is like being a ship on the ocean and having many great adventures, then once you’re a parent, you become the harbor… “and they’re both good.” Bobby’s an inspiration to those traveling the path of working musician, although it’s not a career he would advise. “It’s hard. You have to really love it and be passionate about it.” As tough as this business is, Bobby obviously is passionate about his music. Going to hear him play with his trio is proof enough that he made the right decision about his career choice.
I first saw Bobby play at a bar in Salem called Dodge Street. It was the late ’90s and it was a week night. The place was packed (all there to see him), standing room only. It was electrifying. You knew you were in the presence of greatness. I saw him many more times and along with countless others, was in awe of his talent. But he also had an aura of detachment, a bit of distance around himself that he created, but it was really his way of focusing on what’s ultimately important for him: his playing. He’s a perfectionist, a self-imposed task-master of his craft. He is obsessed with playing the song in the way it deserves and ought to be played and that’s what makes him SO good at what he does… and SO unique. You won’t find another guitarist who sounds quite like him.
As a session guitarist for years (70’s/80’s) he made a name for himself, recording everything from movie soundtracks to jingles to backing artists on their recordings. He worked for the major studios in Boston at the time: Studio B, Angus, Downtown, Longview, Soundtrack, Dimension, and actually recorded his first album (never released) at Music Designers with Jeff Gilman producing. His life became a whirlwind of sessions in New York, Muscle Shoals, and L. A., where he wound up living for 10 years. He still maintains his writing and playing ties to L. A. and also runs his own recording studio here in the Boston area. He plays in a band called the Mystix and also plays with his own Bobby Keyes Trio… but I’m getting ahead of myself. There is so much to tell about this man. I’m going to let him speak about his music in his own words, where he’s been and where he’s going…
Noise: How old were you when you first picked up a guitar?
Bobby: Six. My dad took me to a club on Rt.1 in Saugus called the Wig Wam. A trio was playing and I fell in love with the guitar: an orange-sparkled Gretsch played by Bob Rowe. I wound up taking lessons from him for a few years. When I got to be eight, I’d sit in with bands up and down Rt.1 from Lynn to Salisbury… gin mills, honky tonks. My first gig: when I was ten, Bob got sick one night and my dad drove me up to the Rainbow Lounge on Rt.1 in Ipswich to finish the night with the band. When I was eleven, I played in the house band at the White Star in Rowley on weekend nights with a country band for $15 a night. I did this for a couple years.
Noise: When did you have your first band?
Bobby: I had a trio when I was thirteen (guitar, organ, drums). We called ourselves the Wols—named after the slow sign on the highway looking through the rear-view mirror. We played songs that were on the radio, like “Secret Agent Man” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” mostly at school dances.
Noise: Who are you strongest musical influences?
Bobby: Bob Rowe was the biggest influence on my playing. He listened to Les Paul and Eddie Lang. I got interested in the recording process when I was 15 after working with a folk-singer from Newburyport named Fred Click. We recorded at Natural Sounds in Maynard (Massachusetts) as well as No Soap Music (NYC) and played at Max’s Kansas City in NYC. In the ’70s, I played in Helen Schneider’s band in NYC. We played at the Bottom Line and Trudy Heller’s. Helen was a real cabaret-style singer (like a young Judy Garland). After that I played with Jeannie French. She was on Columbia Records and we did her record at Fame Studios (Muscle Shoals with Rick Hall producing). After that, I toured with Roy Buchanon’s band and then in the early ’90s, while recording an album with Jerry Lee Lewis, I got a call to play on a record for New Kids On The Block with Michael Johnson producing. I remember thinking how could the two sessions be any more different.
Noise: When did you open your recording studio?
Bobby: In the early ’90s I started with an eight-track one-inch tape machine and built it up over the years. After New Kids broke up, I got a call to play on (lead-singer) Jordan Knight’s solo album with a young producer Robin Thicke. Robin was seventeen. Jordan liked my ideas and made me a co-writer on a few of his songs and I’ll always be grateful to him for the opportunity he gave me. He is one of the really great people in the music business… Robin and I connected musically too and I ended up moving to L.A. Robin’s talent as a singer/songwriter/producer was off the charts so I spent the next ten years working with him on his albums. Along the way, I got some co-writing credits on Mya’s (Harrison) record, also Little Wayne and Mary J. Blige. When Django was born, I moved back home.
A young bass-player that I wound up doing a bunch of gigs with, Sean Hurley, re-lit my desire to have my own trio again, so in ’99 I formed Lucky Stereo with Sean and Craig MacIntyre on drums. We recorded a CD in my studio (Lucky Stereo). I brought Sean out to L. A. to record with Robin and we both wound up staying there and playing for John Mayer and now Sean is his musical director.
After that, I did a recording with Jim Gwin (drums) and Marty Ballou (bass), with Mark Hickox on bass for a couple tunes and Ricardo Monzon on percussion for a couple tunes. I seem to do an album every seven years, so I’m in the studio now trying to finish up this latest recording with Marty Ballou and Jesse Williams on bass, and Jim Gwin, Bob Tamagni and Marty Richards on drums. Sean flew out for one song for old time’s sake.
Noise: Where does your trio plays regularly?
Bobby: Beehive (Boston), Dolphin Striker (Portsmouth), Wild Horse Cafe (Beverly, final Tuesday of each month), Ellacoya (Lake Winnipesaukee).
Noise: Who’s been in your recording studio lately?
Bobby: The Mystix, Liz Frame & the Kickers, Julie Dougherty, the Brew, and my own trio. The best thing lately is a talented young engineer Tim Phillips, who is making clients very happy at the studio and has allowed me to get back to playing guitar and spending my time wisely, with my son Django.
Noise: What equipment do you like to use at gigs?
Bobby: I like my ’59 Gibson 330. The 330s, as opposed to the 335s have less bracing and a more open sound and if you sit close to the amp you can get a really nice harmonic feedback. I use a ’64 Fender Vibrolux amp.
Noise: Any final thoughts you want to share?
Bobby: In the ’70s/’80s, there were a lot of great session guitar-players (Dave Brown, Michael Thompson, Jeff Gollub). We’d do a couple sessions a day at a couple different studios. The young kids we heard of who were coming up are now the cream of the crop session players in town—Duke Levine and Kevin Barry, etc. Next, there will be a new generation of players—it’s just the natural progression of things. Lastly, I want to thank all of the musicians who play with me, the folks who come out to support the music, you Julie, and the Noise magazine.