Rock'n Roll Saxophone
STYLES: The Billboard Top 40 hits of the 1950s/60s
“The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”
Bill Haley’s chart hit, “Rock Around the Clock”.
The world of music would never be the same again.
Sax fuelled “rock n’ roll” hits soon would sweep the Top 40 charts.
Teen parties, car cruisin’, drive-in burger joints and movies, dances and jukeboxes.
It was an exciting and fun time to be a Top 40 sax player!
The first sax filled instrumental that caught my attention in 1956 was “Honky Tonk” by Bill Doggett featuring Clifford Scott's tremendous solo. When I heard it on the radio, I immediately was hooked on sax and signed up for 7th grade band.
Top 40 hits came from a mixture of rockabilly, rhythm & blues, and rock & roll. The hits kept me busy, trying to pick out notes and learning the “effects” that were used by sax players on records by Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Billy Vaughn.
From the mellow, “Sail Along Silvery Moon” by Billy Vaughn to the wild, “Keep a Knockin’” by Little Richard, I began to realize that many of the solo styles, although different in some respects, had many similarities.
These hits introduced a new generation of sax players to “effects” such as the growl, flutter tongue, subtone, lip bends, gliss’s, ghosting, alternate fingerings, slap tongue and many different tone qualities.
Although saxophone players came from various backgrounds such as jazz, blues, and rock, they were sharing many of the same solo ideas. Some musicians even played in big swing bands while doing rock & roll session work.
The flutter was used in “Honky Tonk” and “Tequila.” The growl added a unique quality to the solos by Lee Allen and Boots Randolph.
Those who had been influenced by R&B played with a certain “feel” or “expression” that some called “soulful” or “gettin’ down.” Whatever the explanation, the solos caught my attention. I later learned that many of these musicians were influenced by performing not only in big city night clubs but also for the “chitlin’ circuit”, roadhouse dances, and back alley clubs, as well as listening to jazz and jump blues bands.
Those with rock & roll experiences produced great ideas and sounds. I remember some of the terms that were used for rock sax players such as “wailing” or “hip.” With the exception of a few solos which seemed to have a jazz foundation, I always had the impression that most of the rockers may not have seen or played for the same hip grinding crowds that some of the R&B guys were gigging. Although some nightclubs allowed rockers to certainly get down and rowdy in their own way, teen sock hops and proms were more the order of the day for the young rock & roll sax player in the 1950s.
For an example of some obvious style contrasts, I must mention several recordings, which caused discussion, and controversy, among musicians. Pat Boone “covered” the following R&B hits; Fats Domino’s Ain’t That A Shame, The El Dorados’ At My Front Door (Crazy Little Mama), Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally. Take a listen and compare the lead vocal, session musicians, and especially the sax solos, between the different versions of Ain’t That A Shame, Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally.
Here are a few examples from the 50s/60s generally thought of as representative of the Rhythm & Blues sound:
QUEEN OF THE HOP-BOBBY DARIN-JESSE POWELL-TENOR
REBEL ROUSER-DUANE EDDY-GIL BERNAL-TENOR
BOSS GUITAR-DUANE EDDY-JIM HORN-TENOR
about the late and great Jr. Walker and King Curtis? Or, Boots Randolph who has
an outstanding history of session solos? Their hits have been played and enjoyed
by many. I always felt that they were somewhere in the middle of both styles,
producing sounds that although very successful, weren’t as heavily slanted
stylishly to either of the more typical R&B or the R&R sounds. King
Curtis was especially noted for his ability to cross over into the world of blues,
and blues, and jazz
Later generations of Top 40 players would have a major impact in recording sessions and on the sax community. David Sanborn, Michael Brecker, Ernie Watts, Clarence Clemons, Pete Christlieb, Tom Scott, Mel Collins, Kenny G, Candy Dulfer, Richie Cannata, Grover Washington, Jr., Lee “Kix” Thompson, Gerald Albright, Bobby Keys and Branford Marsalis to name a few.
Many of the new styles represented a mixture of many elements and ideas. Some new and some handed down. One can no longer try to classify a sound as R&B or R&R. From the mild to the wild, Top 40 saxophone solos have created a culture of their own.
To appreciate the various styles which have been used on Top 40 records, a young sax player should join an internet music download site and start listening to all of the hits from the 50s through the present. You can obtain a free list of Top 40 hits from 1955-2005 which contain a sax solo, by sending an email to [email protected] or by down-loading it from the SOTW Web Directory (Word document, 463 kB, 68pages).
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John began playing saxophone in 1956 after hearing Clifford Scott’s solo on the hit record, Honky Tonk by the Bill Doggett Combo. Other inspirations followed; Lee Allen and Grady Gaines (Little Richard), Herb Hardesty (Fats Domino), Sam Butera (Louis Prima), Sil Austin, Plas Johnson, Johnny and the Hurricanes, Billy Vaughn and The Champs. John began playing nightclubs in 1958, spent the summers of 1959-62 performing in Virginia Beach, Virginia nightclubs and continued to perform while in the United States Air Force (1963-1967). In 1973, he graduated from the University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida with a degree in instrumental music education and taught public school band for ten years. While in college, John performed in classical, pop and jazz ensembles including jazz concerts with Don Ellis, Maynard Ferguson and Dizzy Gillespie. John continues to perform with a variety of musical groups in Macon, Georgia. His bands have performed on stage with The Temptations, The Four Tops, Chubby Checker, The Drifters, The Platters, The Tams, The Swingin’ Medallions, Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter, The Shirelles and Ray Charles.
John Laughter is the author of “Rock & Roll Saxophone-2nd Edition”, “Contemporary Saxophone” and co-author of “The History of Top 40 Saxophone Solos-1955-2005.”