The Middle Aged Rock & Roll Sax Player
by John Laughter
What song do you play today?
I started playing sax in the 7th grade after hearing Honky Tonk Part 2. The year was 1956 and Rock & Roll was sweeping the nation and playing havoc on the adult population. Teens were waking up from a post war era of relative calm. But now, the Ink Spots, Bing Crosby and Glenn Miller would have to step aside for a new generation of kids and their high-energy music.
Blackboard Jungle sent a message loud and clear with Bill Haley's Rock Around The Clock. And on his heels were Little Richard, Fats Domino, The Champs, Duane Eddy, Billy Vaughn and hundreds of "one hit wonders", many of whom had one thing in common; the saxophone solo. It may have been the featured instrument playing Sail Along Silvery Moon, So Rare and Tequila, or playing the exciting solo on Keep A Knockin', Yes It's Me And I'm In Love Again, or Rebel Rouser. What more incentive could a teenage sax player of the late 50's/early 60's need to pick up the sax and practice for hours at a time? Some hits even crossed over from jazz such as Take 5, Desafinado, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy and Girl from Ipanema. I quickly learned some hit songs and joined a local garage band and played my first "sock hop" within eight months.
My father had played sax in the big band era and was very supportive. We would watch The Lawrence Welk Show every week and attended several concerts by Duke Ellington and the Glenn Miller orchestra. I grew up with an appreciation of the 40's music. I also spent many hours listening to Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and many other jazz artists of the 60's but my main influence was the rock & roll and rhythm and blues that was hitting the Billboard charts.
Throughout the 50's and well into the 60's, a rock & roll sax player had many songs that were requested and well known by the dancers. Remember Junior Walker, Boots Randolph, Bill Black's Combo and Ace Cannon? The hits kept coming! If a young sax player could also play some standards such as Misty, Satin Doll and In The Mood, one would stay very busy since he was able to play a variety of styles. Little did I realize how much the variety of styles would pay off in the future. That is how my father's big band influence came in as well as my high school band director and the school stage band in the late 50's
As the 70's approached, a sax player had fewer commercial hits featuring the horn. Bands, however, continued to take to the stage with horn sections which usually included alto, tenor and sometimes a bari. Remember Blood, Sweat and Tears in the late 60's-early 70's and Chicago? The solos continued and once in a while a strong sax line would hit the charts like the 1975 hit, Pick Up The Pieces by AWB. The fantastic David Sanborn would put his signature on many hits of this period such as Ooh Baby Baby, by Linda Ronstadt, and How Sweet It Is, by James Taylor. But for the most part, the days of Ace Cannon, Steve Douglas, Lee Allen, Junior Walker and Bill Doggett featuring Clifford Scott were fading away with the memories of Roy Rogers and The Howdy Doody Show.
As we grew into the 80's and the 90's, there were even fewer commercial Top 40 hits featuring the saxophone for the entire melody. Jazz, however, was strong and full of great "timeless" sax sounds but was not really the best choice for the "commercial" dance situation. Those who came to party wanted to dance to their jukebox favorites. With fewer hits around, what would the "middle aged rock & roll sax player" do? How many young people at the wedding receptions, class reunions or nightclubs would appreciate Shotgun, Misty, Harlem Nocturne, Honky Tonk or Pick Up The Pieces? With the exception of those over 45 years of age, who would even relate to these great classic hits of an era of poodle skirts and the hippy generation? Despite that, many of us, including myself, continued to play the music from the past.
Enter stage left, Kenny G, to help boost the popularity of the sax via many commercial hits. Candy Dulfer would also contribute with Lily Was Here. Many top guns continued to perform powerful solos on Top 40 hits by Richard Marx and many other young hit makers. The Beach Boys' recording of Kokomo was on the airways night and day but was the "middle aged rock & roll sax player" listening, or was he caught in a time warp of the 50's and 60's?
I began to realize about 1980 that Shotgun and Tequila, although "classics" and great for dancing, did not have quite the impact on the younger generation as it had on my age group. After all, these young people did not grow up listening to this music and had no memories attached to the songs. Yes, they would hear them once in a while on a local "oldies" radio show, but even then, they were more likely to be aware of a vocal hit such as I'm A Soul Man or Chain Of Fools rather than Harlem Nocturne. So, what would I do to feature the sax for the younger generation of dancers and partygoers? Everyone loves the saxophone sound but what do we play to relate better to a wide age group? This really started hitting home when I began to play for class reunion graduates of the 70's and 80's. Now the requests started coming in for KC & The Sunshine Band, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Heart, and the Bee Gees.
I began to listen to the new Top 40 hits and picked up some songs that were popular and in a good range for alto and tenor. I began to replace Summertime, Harlem Nocturne, and Misty with Not In Love by 10 CC in Bb on tenor, Make It Real by The Jets in G for tenor and I Swear in Bb on alto by George Michael Montgomery/ All For One. By the way, Love's Theme by Barry White is a great one from the 70's in Eb for alto. The response has been very good. And, although I am not listening to these songs from a teenage point of view, I like them. The fast songs are still rare so I take solos on the up tempo modern songs and it all works out in the end. I also decided to take my keyboard skills to the stage along with my limited vocals for backup singing. A sax player may want to contribute in other ways since the horn is not used on all songs.
No, I have not given up on the "oldies" and will crank up Shotgun and What Does It Take To Win Your Love, In The Mood and Moonlight Serenade [on soprano] when the occasion arises but I am no longer hung up in the past. And, as a result, never out of work. And, no, I am not critical of the "oldies", far from it, but I reached a point in my performing life when I began to feel somewhat "dated". I love to play for wedding receptions, class reunions, some nightclubs and corporate parties and love to see the dancers having a great time. But the dancers are starting to get younger and "we middle aged rock & roll sax players" may want to reconsider how we can stay up with them as long as possible.
I have played many, many styles from classical to folk to country to funk to jazz to hard rock to disco and big band. All styles have something to offer someone. What we choose to play to entertain the dancers and listeners will, in most cases, determine how much work we get and the types of places that we play. Variety is the key to success, which includes today's hit songs along with those "classics". Again, I am talking about the "wedding band" or uptown club band. I am fortunate to be performing with two very different bands. A "beach" band comprised of ten members who specialize in the "oldies" and do a lot of show work. And, a five-piece midi band with live drums who perform a wide variety of hits from the 40's through the 90's. The beach band enjoys the "oldies" while our midi band stays updated with "current" hits which makes a difference to the listeners and dancers....and me.
So, the next time you have an opportunity to audition with that rock/pop band and the members are somewhat younger, you might want to get up to date with the current hits and horn lines for Jump, Jive and Wail or Livin' La Vida Loca'. It could lead to more jobs and many more years of performing and having fun! Good luck to all of you middle aged sax players! We are still alive and kickin'..............
Author of Rock & Roll Saxophone and Contemporary Saxophone
(From Paul: Many of the questions asked so often by the younger players on the discussion groups are answered in John's two books. I highly recommend you check these out. These are books for saxophonists who intend to play professionally.)