Musings of the Past

In Appreciation Of The Saxophonist

Time for another installment of this infrequent feature, in which I republish select content that first appeared in the earlier stage of the blog when I had fewer followers. The following post about my favorite saxophone players originally appeared in November 2017. I’ve slightly edited it and also added a Spotify playlist at the end.

In Appreciation Of The Saxophonist

A list of some of my favorite saxophone players and solos

Music instruments have always fascinated me. I also have a deep appreciation for musicians who master their gear. Oftentimes, I wish I would have learned more than just the guitar and the bass. For regular readers of the blog or those who know me otherwise, none of this should come as a big surprise. I’ve written a bunch of posts on some of the gear I admire, from guitars like the Fender StratocasterGibson Les Paul and Rickenbacker 360/12, to keyboards like the  Hammond B3, as well as some of my favorite drummers and bassists. One of the coolest instruments I haven’t touched yet is the saxophone.

Let me address the big caveat to this post right away: Since I know next to nothing about jazz, I’m focusing on genres that are in my wheelhouse: rock, blues and pop. While many of the saxophonists I highlight come from the jazz world, it’s still safe to assume I’m missing some outstanding players. On the other hand, where would I even start, if I broadened the scope to jazz? With that being out of the way, following is a list of some of favorite saxophonists and sax solos.

Update: Since subsequently I’ve started to explore the jazz world, mostly in my Sunday Six feature, I’m going to add some tracks in the Spotify playlist featuring some additional outstanding jazz saxophonists.

Raphael Ravenscroft

I imagine just like most readers, I had never heard of this British saxophonist until I realized he was associated with a ’70s pop song featuring one of the most epic sax solos: Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty. The breathtaking performance put Ravenscroft on the map. He went on to work with other top artists like Marvin Gaye (In Our Lifetime, 1981), Robert Plant (Pictures At Eleven, 1982) and Pink Floyd (The Final Cut, 1983). Ravenscroft died from a suspected heart attack in October 2014 at the age of 60. According to a BBC News story, he didn’t think highly of the solo that made him famous, saying, “I’m irritated because it’s out of tune…Yeah it’s flat. By enough of a degree that it irritates me at best.” The same article also noted that Ravenscroft “was reportedly paid only £27 for the session with a cheque that bounced while the song is said to have earned Rafferty £80,000 a year in royalties.” Wow!

Wayne Shorter

The American jazz saxophonist and composer, who started his career in the late ’50s, played in Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet in the 1960s and co-founded the jazz fusion band Weather Report in 1971. Shorter has recorded over 20 albums as a bandleader and played as a sideman on countless other jazz records. He also contributed to artists outside the jazz realm, including Joni MitchellDon Henley and Steely Dan. For the latter, he performed a beautiful extended tenor sax solo for Aja, the title track of their 1977 gem.

Clarence Clemons

The American saxophonist, musician and actor was best known for his longtime association with Bruce Springsteen. From 1972 to his death in June 2011 at age 69, Clemons was a member of the E Street Band, where he played the tenor saxophone. He also released several solo albums and played with other artists, including Aretha FranklinTwisted Sister, Grateful Dead and  Ringo Starr and His All-Star Band. But it was undoubtedly the E Street Band where he left his biggest mark, providing great sax parts for Springsteen gems like Thunder RoadThe Promised Land and The Ties That Bind. One of my favorite Clemons moments is his solo on Bobby Jean from the Born In The U.S.A. album. What could capture “The Big Man” better than a live performance? This clip is from a 1985 concert in Paris, France.

Curtis Amy

The American West Coast jazz musician was primarily known for his work as a tenor and soprano saxophonist. Among others, Amy served as the musical director of Ray Charles’ orchestra for three years in the mid-60s. He also led his own bands and recorded under his own name. Outside the jazz arena, he worked as a session musician for artists like The Doors (Touch Me, The Soft Parade, 1969), Marvin GayeSmokey Robinson and Carole King (Tapestry, 1971). One of the tunes on King’s masterpiece is the ballad Way Over Yonder, which features one of the most beautiful sax solos in pop I know of.

Dick Parry

The English saxophonist, who started his professional career in 1964, has worked as a session musician with many artists. A friend of David Gilmour, Parry is best known for his work with Pink Floyd, appearing on their albums The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), The Division Bell (1994) and Pulse (1995). He also worked with Procol Harum  guitarist Mick Grabham (Mick The Lad, 1972), John Entwistle (Mad Dog, 1975) and Rory Gallagher (Jinx, 1982), among others. One of Parry’s signature sax solos for Pink Floyd appeared on Money. Here’s a great clip recorded during the band’s 1994 Division Bell tour.

Ronnie Ross

Albert Ronald “Ronnie” Ross was a British jazz baritone saxophonist. He started his professional career in the 1950s with the tenor saxophone, playing with jazz musicians Tony KinseyTed Heath and Don Rendell. It was during his tenure with the latter that he switched to the baritone sax. Outside his jazz engagements during the 60s, Ross gave saxophone lessons to a young dude called David Bowie and played tenor sax on Savoy Truffle, a track from The Beatles’ White Album. In the 70s, his most memorable non-jazz appearance was his baritone sax solo at the end of the Lou Reed song Walk On The Wild Side. I actually always thought the solo on that tune from Reed’s 1972 record  Transformer was played by Bowie. Instead, he co-produced the track and album with Mick Ronson. According to Wikipedia, Bowie also played acoustic guitar on the recording.

Walter Parazaider

The American saxophonist was a founding member of Chicago and played with the band for 51 years until earlier this year (2017) when he officially retired due to a heart condition. In addition to the saxophone, Parazider also mastered the flute, clarinet, piccolo and oboe. Here is a clip of Saturday In The Park and 25 Or 6 To 4 from Chicago’s great 2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction performance, which features Parazaider on saxophone.

Alto Reed

Thomas Neal Cartmell, known as Alto Reed, is an American saxophonist who was a member of The Silver Bullet Band since it was founded by Bob Seger in the mid-70s. He toured with Seger and the band for 40-plus years, starting with Live Bullet in 1976. Reed has also performed with many other bands and musicians like FoghatGrand Funk RailroadLittle FeatThe Blues Brothers  and George Thorogood. Among his signature performances for Seger are the saxophone solo in Old Time Rock And Roll and the introduction to Turn the Page. Here’s a great live clip of Turn the Page from 2014.

Junior Walker

Autry DeWalt Mixon Jr., known by his stage name Junior Walker or Jr. Walker, was an American singer and saxophonist whose 40-year career started in the mid-1950s with his own band called the Jumping Jacks. In 1964, Jr. Walker & The All Stars were signed by Motown. They became one of the company’s signature acts, scoring hits with songs like Shotgun(I’m a) RoadrunnerShake And Fingerpop and remakes of Motown tunes Come See About Me and How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You). While Walker continued to record with the band and solo during the ’70s and into the early ’80s, one of his most memorable performances resulted from his guest performance on Foreigner’s 1981 album 4. His saxophone solo on Urgent is one of the most blistering in pop rock. Walker died from cancer in November 1995 at the age of 64.

Bobby Keys

No list of saxophonists who have played with rock and blues artists would be complete without Bobby Keys. From the mid-1950s until his death in December 2014, this American saxophonist appeared on hundreds of recordings as a member of horn sections and was a touring musician. He worked with some of the biggest names, such as The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd SkynyrdGeorge HarrisonJohn LennonEric Clapton and Joe Cocker. Some of these artists’ songs that featured Keys include Don’t Ask Me No Questions (Lynyrd SkynyrdSecond Helping, 1974), Whatever Gets You Thru The Night (John Lennon, Walls And Bridges, 1974) and Slunky (Eric Clapton, Eric Clapton, 1970). But he is best remembered for his sax part on Brown Sugar from the Stones’ 1971 studio album Sticky Fingers.

– End –

The original post, which was published on November 11, 2017, ended here. Here’s the previously mentioned Spotify list featuring all of the above and some additional saxophone greats.

Sources: Wikipedia; BBC; YouTube; Spotify

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What I’ve Been Listening to: Frankie Miller/The Rock

When Max from PowerPop blog recently posted about I Can’t Change It by Frankie Miller, I was immediately intrigued by the Scottish rock singer-songwriter’s soulful vocals. I also instantaneously recognized the name from an appearance on the German TV concert program Rockpalast I had watched in August 1982, though I still can’t remember any of the songs Miller performed during that show. Anyway, this is what prompted me to start listening to his music including his third studio album The Rock from September 1975.

Before getting to this gem, a few words about Miller are in order. He was born as Francis John Miller in Glasgow on November 2, 1949. Miller’s first exposure to music was his mother Cathy’s record collection. She particularly liked Ray Charles who interestingly ended up covering the above I Can’t Change It on his 1980 album Brother Ray Is at It Again, a song Miller had written as a 12-year-old and recorded for his debut album Once in a Blue Moon released in January 1973.

Going back to Miller’s childhood days, another music music influence were his older sisters Letty and Anne, who introduced him to Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Miller started writing his first songs at the age of nine after his parents had given him a guitar. While still being at school, he started singing in a series of bands. Eventually, he joined Glasgow outfit The Stoics. While Chrysalis signed them in 1970, the band broke up before making any recordings.

In 1971, Miller formed a band called Jude, together with former Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower, ex Jethro Tull drummer Clive Bunker and James Dewar, a Glasgow bassist and vocalist. While the band got attention from the British music press, they dissolved in April 1972, also without recording any music. Miller ended up signing a contract with Chrysalis later that year and released his above debut album in January 1973.

Frankie Miller at Rockpalast, Germany, 1982

Until 1985, Miller recorded eight additional solo albums. After his second-to-last solo release Standing on the Edge from 1982, he mostly focused on songwriting, including film music. Miller’s professional career came to a tragic end in August 1994 when he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage while writing music for a new band he and Joe Walsh had formed with English keyboarder and drummer Nicky Hopkins and Ian Wallace, respectively.

According to a bio on Miller’s website, the brain hemorrhage should have killed him but he has shown remarkable courage to claw his way slowly back to health, after spending 15 months in hospital. With massive support from his partner Annette, Frankie is learning to walk and talk again and has even written a new song with lyricist Will Jennings called “Sun Goes Up Sun Goes Down”. But sadly, Miller has not been able to resume performing.

The Rock back cover

While Miller’s records apparently received positive reviews, they were not commercially successful. His singles did not fare much better. Only two of them reached the top 40 in the UK: Be Good to Yourself from May 1977 (no. 27) and Darlin’ from October 1978 (no. 6). Miller’s songs have won writing awards and been performed by an impressive array of artists, such as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Bob Seger, Roy Orbison, Etta James, Joe Cocker, Joe Walsh and Eagles.

Time to get to The Rock, Miller’s only album officially credited to the The Frankie Miller Band. All tracks were written by Miller. Here’s the excellent opener A Fool in Love. Like other tunes on the album, it reminds me of Joe Cocker. The song was actually covered by Etta James on her 1990 album Stickin’ to My Guns.

The title track was inspired by the Alcatraz prison in San Francisco, which could be seen from the studio where the album was recorded. According to Wikipedia, Miller said that music saved him from prison. He dedicated the song to the plight of prisoners, apparently a reference to his second cousin Jimmy Boyle, a Scottish former gangster and convicted murderer who became a sculptor and novelist after his release from prison in October 1981. The Rock has got a cool Faces, early Rod Stewart vibe.

Another gem is Ain’t Got No Money. It’s probably not a coincidence that it became the album’s most covered tune, including by artists like Cher, Chris Farlowe and Bob Seger. Frankly, this would be a great song for The Rolling Stones.

Let’s slow things down with All My Love to You, a dynamite soulful tune. Why this didn’t become a hit beats me. Check it out this beauty!

Frankly, there’s no weak track on this album and I could have selected any other. Let’s do one one more: I’m Old Enough.

The Rock was produced by Elliot Mazer, one of the co-producers of Neil Young’s Harvest album. Musicians included Henry McCullough (lead guitar, backing vocals), Mick Weaver (keyboards), Chrissy Stewart (bass), Stu Perry (drums, percussion) and Miller’s former Jude mate James Dewar. The album also featured two ingredients for shaping its soul sound: The Memphis Horns and The Edwin Hawkins Singers.

Sources: Wikipedia; Frankie Miller website; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Procol Harum/A Whiter Shade of Pale

We skipped the light fandango/Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor/I was feeling kinda seasick/But the crowd called out for more/The room was humming harder/As the ceiling flew away/When we called out for another drink/The waiter brought a tray…

I had not listened to this Procul Harum classic for several years and caught it by chance on the radio in the car earlier this evening- damn, what a truly magnificent tune! A Whiter Shade of Pale was the British rock band’s debut single that appeared in May 1967. And what an impact it made! Within just a month, the tune climbed to the top of the U.K. Singles Chart where it stayed for six weeks. In the U.S., it reached no. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. And apparently all of it without much promotion.

A Whiter Shade of Pale was co-written by Procul Harum’s pianist and lead vocalist Gary Brooker, together with lyricist Keith Reid and Matthew Fisher, a singer-songwriter who played the beautiful Hammond on the recording. “It’s sort of a film, really, trying to conjure up mood and tell a story,” Reid told Songfacts. “It’s about a relationship. There’s characters and there’s a location, and there’s a journey. You get the sound of the room and the feel of the room and the smell of the room. But certainly there’s a journey going on, it’s not a collection of lines just stuck together. It’s got a thread running through it.”

Songfacts also notes the title came to Reid at a party, which gave him a starting point for the lyrics. Brooker and Reid formed Procul Harum in April 1967, together with Fisher, Ray Royer (guitar) and David Knights (bass). The band’s original manager Guy Stevens came up with the name, inspired by a Burmese cat, Procul Harun.

Between the amazing Hammond organ line that’s derived from a classical piece by German Baroque period composer Johann Sebastian Bach and Brooker’s soulful singing, I loved this tune from the very first time I heard it many moons ago. I still get goosebumps. Interestingly, A Whiter Shade of Pale became Procul Harum’s biggest hit by far. The band broke up in 1977, reformed in 1991 and exists to this day, with 75-year-old Brooker remaining as the only original member.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: August 28

1964: The Beatles performed the first of two gigs at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens, New York during the U.S. leg of their world tour that year. They played their standard 12-song set of original tunes largely drawing from the A Hard Day’s Night album, as well as rock & roll covers. The tunes included Twist And ShoutYou Can’t Do ThatAll My LovingShe Loves YouThings We Said TodayRoll Over BeethovenCan’t Buy Me LoveIf I FellI Want To Hold Your HandBoysA Hard Day’s Night and Long Tall Sally. After the show, The Fab Four met Bob Dylan who visited them in their suite at the Delmonico Hotel in New York City. Beatles biographer Jonathan Gould noted the musical and cultural significance of the meeting, saying within six months, “Lennon would be making records on which he openly imitated Dylan’s nasal drone, brittle strum, and introspective vocal persona”; and six months after that, Dylan began performing with a backing band and electric instrumentation, and “dressed in the height of Mod fashion.” While the fact that great music artists influence each other isn’t exactly surprising, based on The Beatles Bible’s account of that night, it seems to me John, Paul, George and Ringo primarily got stoned with Dylan who brought along some grass to smoke. Not really sure how much their condition allowed them to have meaningful conversations about music. Here’s some footage from the Forest Hills show, a great illustration of Beatlemania, which makes me wonder why The Beatles didn’t stop touring earlier.

1965: Exactly one year after The Beatles, Bob Dylan took the stage at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, marking the first night of a 40-date North American tour. Following a solo section, Dylan played an electric set. This all happened only about a month after he had rattled the “folkies” at the Newport Folk Festival. On that night in Forest Hills, Dylan’s electric backing band featured guitarist Robbie Robertson and drummer Levon Helm, who were then associated with a band called The Hawks, a predecessor to The BandHarvey Brooks (bass) and Al Kooper (organ) rounded out the line-up. After the first two shows of the tour, Robertson and Helm insisted that their mates from The Hawks join Dylan’s backing band: Rick Danko (bass), Garth Hudson (keyboards) and Richard Manuel (drums). Dylan agreed, and until May 1966, they would be billed as Bob Dylan and the Band. Here’s a clip of Like A Rolling Stone, which supposedly was captured from the Forest Hills gig. The sound quality is horrible, but, hey, it’s mighty Dylan and it’s historical!

1968: Simon and Garfunkel’s fourth and second-to-last studio album Bookends hit no. 1 on the UK Official Albums Chart Top 100, starting a five-week run in the top spot there. Apart from the title track, the record featured gems like America and the no. 1 U.S. single Mrs. Robinson. Written by Paul Simon, the tune had become famous the previous year when it had been included in the American motion picture The Graduate. I’ve always loved the bluesy touch of that song.

1972: Alice Cooper topped the British singles chart with School’s Out, scoring his only no. 1 hit anywhere in the world. Credited to Cooper (lead vocals) and the members of his band at the time, Michael Bruce (rhythm guitar, keyboards, backing vocals), Glen Buxton (lead guitar), Dennis Dunaway (bass, backing vocals) and Neal Smith (drums, backing vocals), the tune was the title track of the band’s fifth studio album released in June 1972. School’s Out also became Cooper’s biggest chart success in the U.S., peaking at no. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. According to Songfacts, Cooper during a 2008 interview with Esquire said, “When we did ‘School’s Out,’ I knew we had just done the national anthem. I’ve become the Francis Scott Key of the last day of school.” It’s also safe to assume, Cooper shocked some school principals and parents.

1981: British DJ, producer and band manager Guy Stevens passed away at the age of 38 years from an overdose of prescription drugs he was taking to reduce his alcohol dependency – yikes! Among others, Stevens gave Procol Harum and Mott the Hoople their distinct names. He also co-produced The Clash’s fifth studio album London Calling from December 1979, together with Mick Jones, the band’s co-founder, lead guitarist and co-lead vocalist. Stevens also brought Chuck Berry to the U.K. for his first tour there in 1963. He also was the president of the Chuck Berry Appreciation Society. According to Wikipedia, Stevens introduced lyricist Keith Reid to keyboarder Gary Brooker and told Reid at a party that a friend had turned “a whiter shade of pale”. Supposedly, these words inspired the song with the same title that was subsequently recorded by Brooker’s newly formed band Procol Harum and became a major international hit in 1967.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Music, The Beatles Bible, Songfacts, YouTube