Saxophone Dreams

On a hot day in West Palm Beach, Florida, in June 2011, 69-year old Clarence Clemons succumbed to complications from a stroke he had suffered 8 days earlier. Although far from a household name, the six-foot, five-inch tall ex-football player was an icon to legions of Bruce Springsteen fans as The E Street Band’s indomitable saxophonist. In the following weeks, he would be mourned widely as one of the most distinctive instrumentalists of the ‘classic rock’ era.

Clemons had joined The E Street Band as its sole African-American member in 1971, following a fateful meeting at a Jersey Shore club, a seminal event in the band’s mythology immortalised in ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’, a live favourite from the Born to Run album (1975). The addition of Clemons’ alternatively bombastic and mournful saxophone fleshed out and helped define what became the quintessential ‘electric’ Springsteen sound: lush, self-consciously vintage, bordering on mannered, yet earnest and emotive in pointed contrast to the spiky irony of the contemporary glam, punk and new wave scenes.

Clarence Clemons performing. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

In the months surrounding Clemons’ death, the saxophone, the instrument that he more than anyone had been responsible for returning to rock’s mainstream three decades earlier, appeared to be having an unexpected moment. In May, art-pop provocateur Lady Gaga had released ‘The Edge of Glory’, the third single from her album Born this Way, a piece of classic rock-inflected synth-pop utilising the 4-4 Euro-disco beat that dominated the charts that year. In June, Katie Perry’s ‘Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F)’ entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 67. The song is a featherweight, summery ode to debauchery, its cheerfully inane video channelling John Hughes’ teen movies of the 80s.

To varying degrees, both singles were hits. ‘The Edge of Glory’ charted strongly in multiple markets, peaking at number three in the US. ‘Last Friday Night’ was a bone fide smash. The song, produced by Swedish pop Svengalis Dr Luke and Max Martin, quickly dominated US radio, hovering in the top five for several weeks before eventually becoming the fifth single from Perry’s Teenage Dream (2010) to reach the number one spot, where it stayed for a fortnight.

In 2011, Perry and Gaga’s hits were notably incongruous for prominently featuring saxophone, which at that point had been rarely heard on the pop charts and ‘adult contemporary’ albums for nearly twenty years. ‘The Edge of Glory’ features a gorgeous, pulsating solo, played by Clemons himself in one of his last appearances on record. Entering at the song’s three quarter mark, Clemons’ sax builds and ebbs in lockstep with synths and buzzing electric guitar, driving the song to a satisfying crescendo.

The sax break in ‘Last Friday Night’ is more concise and arguably more memorable—an incendiary 20-second burst that violently interrupts the song’s chanted breakdown and dissolves shortly thereafter in a mess of looping squeals. It’s an unexpected moment of goofy, undeniable fun. Although not on the recording, Kenny G makes a cameo to mime this bizarre saxophone interjection with self-mocking aplomb in the video.

The self-consciousness that pervades the sax’s presence in both songs is a reference to the fruitful yet complicated relationship the instrument has had with rock and roll, stretching back more than sixty years to the genre’s very beginnings. While it isn’t possible to do justice to this long history in the space available, I’d like to share five of my favourite saxophone moments in rock and roll history:

1. Jackie Brenston/Ike Turner, ‘Rocket 88’ (1951)

Widely acknowledged as the first rock and roll song, Rocket 88 features the Kings of Rhythm, the backing band led by Ike Turner, who produced the record. The song, covered by Bill Haley later that year, features a rollicking solo by 17 year-old Raymond Hill (later the father of Tina Turner’s child).

2. David Bowie, ‘Young Americans’ (1975)

The title track from Bowie’s Tony Visconti-produced foray into imitating the post-Motown r&b sound associated with the Philadelphia International label, is led by a funky (if overblown) saxophone, in addition to gospel backing vocals.

3. The Band, ‘It Makes No Difference’ (1976)

The band’s enigmatic multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson delivers a beautifully understated sax solo in this tearjerker from 1975’s otherwise weak Northern Lights album, probably best known for its emotional performance in The Last Waltz (1976).

4. Bruce Springsteen, ‘Drive All Night’ (1980)

While far from the most epic of Clemons’ solos (that honour goes to Born to Run’s ‘Jungle Land’), the hypnotic beauty of Drive All Night from The River is pushed into overdrive by Clemons’ restrained sax.

5. Pete Rock and CL Smooth, T.R.O.Y (1992)

This rumination on friendship and family, inspired by the death of a beloved associate, is from Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s classic Mecca and the Soul Brother (1992). The track is driven by a stirring saxophone break sampled from Tom Scott’s cover of the Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Today.’

Honourable Mention:

Jennifer Lopez, ‘Get Right Remix’ (2005)

Written by Usher, this single from J-Lo’s fourth studio album Re-Birth (2005) is considered her most sonically ambitious song. It is built around a saxophone sample  from Maceo and the Macks’ ‘Soul Power 74’ (1973), itself a remix of James Brown’s ‘Soul Power’ (1971). J-Lo’s grating vocals almost, but don’t quite ruin the stellar production . This remix with Brooklyn rapper Fabulous is the best.

2 thoughts on “Saxophone Dreams

  1. You missed one of the most iconic sax solos on a pop record….David Bowie on Lou Reeds…..Walk On The Wild Side. What aboutBobby Keys……on The Rolling Stones….Miss You…


    • Hi Tim,

      Yes that’s a great one! I also wanted to include Sony Rollins closing sax solo on The Stones ‘Waiting on a Friend’, but thought I should get in a couple of non-rock tracks from later periods too for fun. Thanks a lot for reading!


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