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R.I.P. Ben Keith 1937-2010

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Ben Keith, the multi-instrumentalist and producer best known for his work with Neil Young for nearly four decades, has died at the age of 73.

In addition to being Neil Young’s pedal steel guitarist on albums like Harvest and Harvest Moon (which he also co-produced with Young), Keith was the primary musical collaborator on a number of albums spread throughout Young’s legendary career, including Tonight’s The Night, Time Fades Away, American Stars And Bars, Comes A Time, Prairie Wind, and Chrome Dreams II. Keith also played pedal steel with a number of Young’s touring bands including the Santa Monica Flyers, International Harvesters, and most notably the Stray Gators.

Ben Keith was first tapped in 1972 by Neil Young to work with him on what would end up being Young’s biggest selling album, the worldwide #1 smash, Harvest. After a chance meeting in Nashville, where he was taping a broadcast of The Johnny Cash Show, Young was introduced to Keith by bassist Tim Drummond.

Along with Drummond and drummer Kenny Buttrey, Young and Keith then formed the Stray Gators and began a concert tour to promote the Harvest album, which later carried over into shows featuring the newer, less radio-friendly songs eventually documented on the 1973 live album Time Fades Away.

Keith stayed on with Neil Young for the dark masterpiece Tonight’s The Night and remained a constant on his albums from that point forward. Eventually the Stray Gators officially reformed for the Harvest “sequel,” 1992’s classic Harvest Moon album. At the time of his death, Ben Keith had been staying at Neil Young’s California ranch and working on Neil’s upcoming new album with producer Daniel Lanois.

In addition to his work with Neil Young, Ben Keith has worked with such artists as Todd Rundgren, Waylon Jennings, Linda Ronstadt, The Band, Ringo Starr, and Jewel (Keith produced her multi-platinum seller Pieces Of You). Most recently, Ben Keith played on the Foul Deeds album by Neil Young’s wife Pegi and had just last month completed a short West Coast club tour with the Pegi Young Band supporting Bert Jansch.



 

As early reports of Keith’s passing first began surfacing on the Internet late yesterday, there were few details about the nature or even the exact time of his death. However, in a Los Angeles Times report published earlier today, film director Jonathan Demme, who filmed both Young and Keith in the concert documentaries Heart Of Gold and Neil Young’s Trunk Show, says that Keith died of a heart attack.

Speaking about Ben Keith in the same article, Demme said that Keith was “an elegant, beautiful dude, and obviously a genius. He could play every instrument. He was literally the bandleader on any of that stuff… Neil has all the confidence in the world, but with Ben on board, there were no limits. Neil has a fair measure of the greatness of his music, but he knew he was even better when Ben was there.”

Neil Young himself acknowledged Ben Keith’s passing onstage at a concert in Winnipeg this past Monday night. Dedicating the song “Old Man” to his friend and longtime collaborator, Young said “This is for Ben Keith. His spirit will live on. The Earth has taken him.”

As of this writing, there has been no official statement from Ben Keith’s family, or any word on a funeral service.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://neilyoungnews.thrasherswheat.org/ thrasher

    Thanks Glen.
    A fine tribute.
    Ben will be missed.
    He sleeps with angels now.

  • Arne Neumann

    Very sad.
    Ben Keith greatly contributed to Neil Young’s masterpiece (maybe his greatest work ever – ?) ‘On the Beach’ also, playing many different instruments –
    i have no idea know why this is rarely mentioned.

    Anyway – thanks for a nice tribute to a great musician.