The other night I was watching a documentary on saxophonist Bobby Keys and learned an interesting fact. Something that wasn’t even mentioned in his biography, which was that “Brown Sugar” didn’t originally have a sax solo on it. Instead, the track had been cut and was being prepared for release when at a dual birthday party for Bobby and Keith Richards that the song was performed (along with Eric Clapton on guitar) that Bobby played the lead. The Stones’ producer Jimmy Miller thought it was so great that he convinced the Stones to have Bobby overdub the part.
The rest, as they say, is history.
This got me into a Bobby Keys phase, and I started building a playlist of the songs he’d played on: Lots of Stones, of course, some John Lennon, a little Harry Nilsson, some Joe Cocker and lastly some George Harrison.
When I think of Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”, the thing I most associate with the album is that Bad Finger was his backing band. What I don’t associate with that album is Bobby Keys, and that’s because there aren’t many memorable Bobby Keys moments. In fact, there isn’t a single sax solo on the record. And listening to it, it felt wrong. That is, after listening to numerous Bobby Keys solos, and then going to a record with no Bobby Keys solos, they felt missed. But more than that, I felt they would have actually elevated a couple of the songs.
Harrison is, of course, an incredible slide player, and pretty much played slide wherever he could. But for the first time, and in the context of this playlist, that made the album seem a little one note to me. It was too expected, too obvious. Sure, his playing was great, but it kept the songs staid. Suddenly the album lacked variety and texture.
Harrison was heavily influenced at the time by The Bands “Music from Big Pink” and Bob Dylan, and was clearly making a rootsy record along the same lines. In that regard, the slide guitar more than gives it that feel, however, a sax solo, especially on a track like “Hear Me Lord” would have given it more soul.
As much as I love “All Things Must Pass”, it pales next to the Stones’ “Exile on Mainstreet” and I think it’s for exactly this reason. Jimmy Miller and the Stones embraced those around them and gave them the opportunity to shine and elevate their music. They were a group of musicians working towards a common goal, as opposed to a solo artist recording an album that reflected the music they were currently listening to.