There’s something about the sound of a saxophone that reaches the depths of my soul.
It can be a wonderfully sexy drawl, like the dreamy part you hear in Dire Straits’ “Your Latest Trick” (1985) or Junior Walker and The All-Stars’ “What Does It Take?” (1969)
Or it might be the greasy, frenzied solos that drive the middle break in the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” (1971) or Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” (1956).
For me, the sax has the most uncanny ability to make me stop whatever I’m doing and take a moment to groove to whatever song in which it’s featured. It comes down to this: If a song has a sax part in it, it’s better, sometimes way better, than it would be without it.
I mean, seriously. Imagine Sade’s “Smooth Operator” (1984) without the sultry sax that winds its way through the entire song. You can’t.
Although the saxophone is perhaps best known for its contributions to jazz music, there’s no question it has made an indelible mark on rock ‘n roll as well. From the very beginning, sax and rock music have been fast friends, and it’s not hard to see why.
In 1967, at age 12, I persuaded my parents to get me an electric guitar for Christmas. I was one of apparently hundreds of thousands of young American boys who wanted to get together with a few like-minded friends and start a band.
I took lessons, learned a few chords, and saved up money to buy a small amplifier. I was now equipped to thrash my way through a few basic rock songs like “Gloria” and “Hey Joe” with my drummer friend Paul. Later, I got together with my buddy Steve on bass, Andy on lead guitar, and Tim on drums (Paul had moved). We called ourselves Phoenix.
Like so many other rudimentary bands across the country, we would practice in basements (if our parents could tolerate the noise) or in garages (where we were out of earshot). We tried mightily to get proficient enough to play in front of friends at school variety shows or YMCA dances or “Battle of the Bands” parties.
It was thrilling, even though we weren’t very good.
Some of these rough-edged groups practicing in garages nationwide were lucky enough to have connections, or be discovered, and somehow managed to cut a record that, against all odds, got played on the local AM rock and roll station. An even smaller segment watched dumbfounded as their record received regional and then national airplay. Probably less than one tenth of 1% achieved the holy grail: Their record made it into the Billboard Top Ten pop charts!
Rock historians now look back at the transitional period from roughly 1965 through 1968 as the era of “garage rock” — although it wasn’t called that at the time.