Sep 24



Blues singer Muddy waters sang a song: ” The blues had a baby, and they named it Rock ‘n Roll.” I think its safe to say that all popular music since the 1950’s has had its roots in Rock ‘n Roll.
The saxophone has been evident in most styles of popular music since the 50’s, but without a shadow of a doubt , the golden era of sax has to be the 1980’s.
Tenor sax was particularly popular in the early 50’s Rock ‘n Roll. The player that stands out the most for me in that era is Rudi Pompilli  with Bill Haley and the Comets.  The definitive sax tune of the 50’s has to be Tequila by the Champs, played by Daniel Flores

The surfing music of the early 60’s seemed to use sax quite a bit in the line up. However the rest of the 60’s sax was seldom featured in mainstream pop.  The sax tune that stands out in the 60’s is Boots Randolph’s version of Yakety Sax. (My all time least favorite sax tune)
Although sax in a pop music line up was not popular, (excuse  the pun) jazz had broken into into the mainstream, thanks to late 50’s bands like the Brubeck Quartet becoming popular with university students. The sax player that stands out for me the most in this category is tenor man Stan Gets. In particular his bossonova era, and one tune in particular the 1964 song The Girl from Ipanema.

In the 1970’s the sax in popular music seems to gain popularity once again. There are a few that stand out for me. 1972 Lou Reeds Walk on the wild side with Ronnie Ross on tenor.
1975 Bruce Springsteen Jungleland with Clarence Clemons on tenor.
Two players in the era really stand out for me. Michael Brecker on tenor and David Sanborn on alto.
Late 70’s into the 80’s there is one saxophonist that for me must get 1st prize for worst sax player, but in the same breath he gets 1st prize for most fun sax player…. that is Lee Thompson of Madness. In particular 1977 One Step beyond.
Towards the end of the 70’s sax solos in popular music seems to really gain momentum. For me there were 2 solos that set the standard and set the stage for GOLDEN ERA OF SAXOPHONE.
1977 Billy Joel Just the way you are with Phil Woods on alto. And the one that gets my vote for the greatest sax solo in a pop song.. 1979 Gerry Rafferty Baker street, with Raphael Ravenscroft on alto. (A night seldom goes by, that I don’t get a request to play this song)

Usher in the 1980’s and the GOLDEN ERA OF SAXOPHONE where just about every 80’s hit song had a sax solo.
In the 1980’s there in one sax player that for me stands HEAD AND SHOULDERS (in more ways than one) above the rest. That is tenor man Clarence Clemons of the E street band (Bruce Springsteen)

This is my list of top 10 favorite sax solos of the 80’s
10) Never tear us apart (INXS) Kirk Pengilly 1984
9) I’m going down (Bruce Springsteen) Clarens Clemens. Tenor 1984
8) Still Rock ‘n Roll to me (Billy Joel)  Richie Cannata. Tenor. 1980
7) Man Eater (Hall and Oates) Charles de Chant. Tenor. 1982
6) Will you (Hazel O’ Conner) Wesley  Mc Googan. Alto. 1984
5) Just the two of us Grover Washington jnr. Tenor. 1981
4) Smooth Operator (Sade) Stu Matthews. Tenor. 1984
3) Arthur’s Theme (Christopher Cross) Ernie Watts. Alto. 1981
2) Your latest trick (Dire Straits) Chris White (Live) Michael Brecker (studio) Tenor. 1986
1) Careless Whisper (George Michael) Steve Gregor. Alto. 1984

No discussion about the 80’s and saxophone would be complete without mention of Canadian saxophonist Kenny G. Now it doesn’t matter if you are a fan or not, it is because of Kenny G., that soprano sax is a popular instrument with sax players today. Before Kenny G., with few exceptions, most sax players would get quite a harsh tone on soprano, and therefore until the 80’s was not a popular instrument.

Sax solos in 80’s pop songs almost reached epidemic proportions.
A television presenter in the mid 80’s on a Canadian channel summed it up while introducing violinist Corey Cerovsek by saying: “After the break… Is there too much SAX and VIOLIN on t.v?”

Too much of a good thing…… The sax seems to lose popularity in the pop song around 1990. Maybe its time for another come back and another GOLDEN ERA OF SAX.

Please leave a comment and vote for you favorite sax solo of the 80’s.

1 comment

  1. Keith Olivares (@KeithKetong71)

    Interesting article. Although, I would argue that 50s had more sax solos in Pop Music than the 80s. Little Richard almost always had a tenor sax wailing in the middle of his songs. The Del Vikings had an awesome sax solo in the song, “Come Go With Me”. Dion’s “The Wonderer” also has a kick-ass tenor sax solo (I gotta transcribe that one once). The list goes on and on.

    In the 60s, IMHO, the sax was kept alive in Pop Music by the Motown Sound. You can’t talk about the sax in the 60s without mentioning Junior Walker.

    But the 80s still had great sax solos in Pop Music. Those sax solos were one of the reasons I picked up the axe in High school. You have great sax solos in the following songs:

    Spandau Ballet’s “True” and “Gold”
    Glenn Fry’s “You Belong To The City” and “The One You Love” (the first sax solo I learned)
    Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight” (although very brief)
    David Bowie’s “Modern Love” (Uses Baritone and Alto)
    Hall and Oats’ “One on One”

    and, arguably, the most famous (or most infamous) sax solo that came out of 80s Pop music — Wham’s “Careless Whispers”

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