and producer from Fort Riley, Kansas, who was raised in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He was best known as a steel guitar
player, but he could also play the alto saxophone, electric guitar, and
piano. He built his first steel
guitar out of used parts and wood.
In 1956, he
moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and promptly enlisted in the
local musician’s union. His
birth name was Bennett Keith Schaeufele and the
union secretary encouraged him to shorten it to Ben Keith. Within a year, he was performing
with Faron Young’s Country Deputies, which
also included guitarist Odell Martin and bassist Tom Pritchard. Eventually, Darrell McCall and Roger
Miller joined their ranks, as well.
Ben was also
an active session musician and appeared on Patsy Cline’s 1961 hit, “I
Fall to Pieces”. In 1963,
he quit the band and decided to pursue studio work on a more regular basis,
as well as producing and putting together some demonstration reels. He recorded with Mother Earth and Ringo Starr in the late 1960s.
In 1972, he
appeared on a pair of albums now considered classics, Something/Anything? by Todd Rundgren and Harvest
by Neil Young. He would
continue to collaborate with Neil Young for the rest of his life. Neil affectionately nicknamed him
Brother Ben. He appeared on
some of Neil’s biggest hits, such as “Heart of Gold”, “Old
Man”, and “Rockin’ in the Free
and groups with whom he worked included The Band, Blue, David Crosby, Emmylou
Harris, Ian & Sylvia, Waylon Jennings, Anne Murray, Graham Nash, Willie
Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, and Warren Zevon.
In 1984, he
released his solo debut album, To a
Wild Rose, which featured the talents of guitarist J.J. Cale and harmonica player Paul Butterfield. He co-produced Neil Young’s American Stars and Bars, Comes a Time, Harvest Moon, and Old
Ways. Another solo album, Seven Gates: A Christmas Album by Ben Keith and
Friends, hit the shelves in 1994.
He produced one of the 1990s’ most successful albums, Pieces of You by Jewel, in
1995. It has reportedly sold
over twelve million copies.
In 2004, he performed
on Neil Young’s Greendale, and appeared in the film of the same
name as Grandpa Green. He spent
much of the rest of the decade on the road, touring with Crosby, Stills,
Nash & Young and then going on a world tour with Neil from 2007 to
2009. In 2009, he appeared on
Neil’s Fork in the Road album. He also performed with The Pegi Young Band on a brief West Coast swing in support
of their album, Foul Deeds.
July 2010, Ben died at Neil’s Broken Arrow Ranch, which he called
home during the last years of his life. The cause of his death seems to be a
source of mystery. Jonathan Demme, the filmmaker who directed Heart of Gold and Neil
Young Trunk Show, said he died of a heart attack. Another source cites a blood clot in
his lung and yet another simply deems it a death from unknown causes.
In any case, a
hole has been left in the musical landscape. Ben was a beloved colleague, friend
and musician, and he has left behind a generous legacy of music. Shortly after his death, at a
concert in Winnipeg, Alberta, Neil dedicated “Old Man”
to Brother Ben.