By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Reuters) - Bobby Keys, longtime saxophonist for the Rolling Stones, died early on Tuesday at his home in Franklin, Tennessee, after a long illness. He was 70.
"The Rolling Stones are devastated by the loss of their very dear friend and legendary saxophone player, Bobby Keys," the band said in a statement. "Bobby made a unique musical contribution to the band since the 1960s. He will be greatly missed."
Keys was still a teenager when he played sax for Buddy Holly in the 1950s and later performed with John Lennon, George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Joe Cocker, in addition to the Stones.
"I can't express the sense of sadness I feel, though Bobby would tell me to cheer up," Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards said on Twitter. Keys and Richards shared the same birth date, Dec. 18, 1943, and the two became close, sharing late nights and drugs, according to their autobiographies.
"He was a good friend and an inspiration to play with," said longtime friend and Nashville rock veteran Michael Webb, who performed with Keys in a band of Southern rock all-stars called Bobby Keys and the Suffering Bastards.
Webb said Keys had a liver ailment and had been in and out of the hospital in the past two months.
Keys' family was not immediately available for comment.
Keys was not a full-time member of the Stones but frequently led the horn section when the band went into the studio or on the road. Some of his best work can be heard on the songs "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," "Live With Me," "Brown Sugar" and "Emotional Rescue."
Keys wrote of his struggles with heroin and life with the Stones in the autobiography "Every Night's a Saturday Night."
Keys' drug problem became so severe that he ran afoul of Stones frontman Mick Jagger and was exiled from the band during a 1973 tour. Richards said it took nearly 10 years before he was able to work Keys back into the band.
Keys, born in Slaton, Texas, never learned to read music.
"That's not where I come from musically," he told Rolling Stone magazine. "I come strictly from feeling, and that feeling comes from rock 'n' roll."
Keys performed on albums the Stones put out during what many critics consider their peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s - "Let It Bleed," "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile on Main Street."
(Editing by Fiona Ortiz, Bill Trott and Peter Cooney)