When we think of the saxophone, Pop music isn’t always the first genre that comes to mind. We associate the sax more with Jazz than anything else.
But, there has been some great work using the sax with Pop songs and music. So, I decided to take a closer look at the most famous saxophone solos in pop music history.
- A Recent Addition
- Some Useful Similarities
- The Early Days
- The Duke
- The Move To Pop and Rock Music
- The Most Famous Saxophone Solos in Pop Music History – Top 10 Picks
- Are You a Fan of the Saxophone?
- The Most Famous Saxophone Solos in Pop Music History – Final Thoughts
A Recent Addition
In terms of instruments, you could consider the sax as a fairly recent addition. It was invented by an instrument maker from Belgium, Adolphe Sax, in the 19th Century and was finally patented in 1846. In its original form, it was a cross between a clarinet and a brass instrument.
It has changed in its design over the years, but the modern-day instruments still carry elements of both clarinet and brass instruments. It has a single-reed mouthpiece like the clarinet. But it is made of metal materials, like brass and sometimes silver, as a brass instrument might be.
Some Useful Similarities
Each type of saxophone (Alto, Tenor, etc.) has a different size reed. However, the fingerings required to produce the notes are all the same. This allows the player to move easily between different types of saxophones.
The finger placements are also very similar to the oboe, flute, and some clarinets. Again, this allows musicians to cross between the different instruments seamlessly in terms of finger placements.
Despite some confusion among those beginning to play the instrument, the sax is categorized as a woodwind instrument, like the clarinet. It is not considered a brass instrument.
The Early Days
Adolphe Sax invented two types of sax, with each group having seven instruments. One group had the instrument in Bb and Eb and the other in C and F. As we know, the Bb and Eb instruments became the dominant option and still are today.
Until the early 20th century, the sax was regarded as a novelty instrument within classical circles. However, it gradually became popular in Ragtime and Vaudeville, which essentially laid the foundations for its move into Jazz.
It was in the 1920s that the sax started to gain popularity. Duke Ellington and his orchestra became a major influence in its use. It was during this period that it was inducted into marching bands and even, in some circumstances, to classical pieces.
But, it is with Jazz that it is recognized and may well be the most important jazz instrument played. I doubt the trumpet and piano players will agree with that one. The names of the great jazz saxophonists sound like a list of the greatest musicians ever:
- John Coltrane.
- Sonny Rollins.
- Stan Getz.
- Cannonball Adderley.
- Ornette Coleman.
- Dexter Gordon.
And, that’s the shortlist…
Oh, and there was one other who some thought was not too bad. I think his name was Charlie Parker. The Bird.
I jest. He was probably the finest sax player ever and one of the greatest musicians ever. There were musicians brought up on Jazz that also had Rock and Pop music inclinations. Michael Brecker is one.
We shall see his name mentioned in my list of the most famous saxophone solos in Pop music history, along with some others.
The Move To Pop and Rock Music
It was just a short step. Songwriters, artists, producers, and engineers wanted something different in their songs and productions. For some songs, the sax was perfect. It could be exciting, or it could be sad. Or, it could create an atmosphere with its sound like nothing else.
And, in the hands of a great player, you were going to get something special. Not all of the Jazz hierarchy was happy with that situation, and some considered it demeaning for Jazz musicians to play Pop.
So, let’s stop talking about it and get down to the important part. Listening. Let’s take a look at some of the greatest saxophone solos in Pop music.
The Most Famous Saxophone Solos in Pop Music History – Top 10 Picks
Moondance by Van Morrison
Sax solo by Jack Schroer
Van Morrison, besides being a great singer, was also a multi-instrumentalist. He had the benefit of a great upbringing in music, working with Irish showbands. The work was long and hard and covered plenty of genres.
You learned how to play most things. And, for ‘Van the Man’ as he was known, that included guitar, keyboards, harmonica, and the saxophone. He announced his arrival on the music scene as the singer with the Irish band, Them.
This was possibly the album that established Morrison as a solo artist. It was taken from the album of the same name, Moondance.
The single wasn’t released until seven years after the album. Despite it being highly thought of, it wasn’t a commercial success. It was a great Pop song with a sax solo, though.
Morrison didn’t play the solo himself on this track as he did on others. The sax solo was played by Jack Schroer. He added some great playing to the track, full of power; it gave it a substantial lift.
Urgent by Foreigner
Sax solo by Walker Junior
This is a track by the British-American band that was taken from their 1981 album, 4. The single wasn’t particularly successful in the UK, reaching only #54. However, it did better in America, where they had a larger following, peaking at #4.
The song is a bit of a mishmash of other bits of songs that Mick Jones had written. He had made some quick demos over the years, and they were stuck together to form “Urgent.”
Include a Sax
They decided to include a sax solo, and they asked if they could get Walker Junior to play it. He, of Junior Walker and the All-Stars fame.
By coincidence, he was performing not far away from the studio and came in and did the solo. It is as impressive as you would expect from a saxophonist with his pedigree.
Just the Two of Us by Bill Withers
Sax Solo by Grover Washington, Jr.
If you are going to try and come up with a relaxed, cool track, then who do you turn to? Bill Withers, with his easy, soulful voice and a legend of Smooth Jazz, Grover Washington, Jr.
It reached #34 on the UK chart and #2 in America. It is notable for the impressive Fender Rhodes piano, especially in the intro. But, more importantly, for the memorable Pop song sax solo played by Washington.
Has He Played It Slightly Flat?
It is commented that some think it is played slightly flat. Although, you will need a very good ‘ear’ to hear it. But that could be the genius of a great musician.
By playing it as he does, he adds a warm, almost dark tone to the sax. That is one of the great attributes of this instrument. You can do that and enhance the sound and the track you are playing on. But, you’ve got to be good.
Smooth Operator by Sade
Sax Solo by Stuart Matthewman
Sade, the singer, and Sade, the band, have had an interesting music career that has gained them much recognition. However, in some circles, they are still not widely known. Born in Nigeria, she is one of the most successful British female singers ever.
In 2002, she was awarded the OBE, Order of the British Empire. And in 2017, a CBE, Commander of the British Empire, for her services to music.
Their early work was sensational…
The ‘super-cool,’ sophisticated, Smooth Jazz sound was something very new for the UK. The first album, Diamond Life, became one of the best-selling albums of the era. It was also the biggest-selling debut album for a British singer.
“Smooth Operator” was a track from that album. It reached number #19 in the UK and #5 in America.
You might refer to them as that. In the early 1990s, they had an eight-year hiatus while she gave birth to and cared for her child. They reformed and released another album, Lovers Rock, in 2000. Then, disappeared again for ten years.
The song is memorable for many reasons, and one of these is the sax solo by Stuart Matthewman. He wasn’t even a principal sax player; he was the guitarist and co-wrote a lot of their best songs. That says a lot about the natural music talent he offers.
A Big Contribution To The Sound
It is not a lengthy piece, but its contribution to the track is enormous. A repetitive piece with a great tone at the beginning of the song is an indication of what is to come. He plays underneath the vocal and lifts the song from underneath the vocal as it fades.
An excellent piece of sax playing that is an indication, if we needed one, of how much this instrument can add to a song.
The Best by Tina Turner
Sax Solo by Edgar Winter
There can be no doubt that Tina Turner is a Rock icon. She is one of the great singers of the 20th century, and her music is going to be with us for a very long time. This song was released in 1989 on her album, Foreign Affair.
Although the song is immediately recognizable as “hers,” she wasn’t the first to release it. Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler, who sounds like she eats gravel for breakfast to get her tone, released it a year before.
This version only reached #95 in the UK chart, and this might be a reason that Tina decided to do it. Tina’s version went to #5 in the UK and #15 in America and heralded somewhat of a comeback for the Rock and Roll Queen.
The Sax Solo
To some, it may come as a surprise that it was Edgar Winter, brother of Johnny, who played it. People who know Edgar won’t be surprised. A talented multi-instrumentalist musician on guitar, keyboards, and saxophone, this was one of his great moments.
The verses and the chorus are powerful as Tina gives it everything. But then, you get to the bridge, and the tension builds. There is only one way out from there, a great solo. No guitar here, just Edgar’s sax, and he delivers it perfectly.
He drags every last piece of emotion out of the instrument in a virtuoso performance. In some respects, it is the best part of the song.
Careless Whisper by George Michael
Sax Solo by Steve Gregory
Another Pop song with a famous saxophone solo that helps to make a song. A part that is instantly recognizable, leaving no doubt what the song is. Written by Michael along with ex-Wham partner Andrew Ridgeley and was released on their joint album, Make It Big.
It became one of the most recognizable sax solos in pop music, but not without one or two problems. It is difficult to play in the key the song was written in. So, it was played a semitone down and tuned back up electronically in the studio.
Eight musicians tried their hand at it…
Steve Gregory was the ninth sax player to attempt the song. He arrived at the studio late in the night, and his friend Ray Warleigh was there. He had been waiting for Michael to show up, but he hadn’t come. Warleigh went home, and Gregory played the part.
The song was a huge success reaching #1 in the UK and America, with platinum sales figures in both countries. It also topped the chart in half a dozen other countries.
Rio by Duran Duran
Sax Solo by Andy Hamilton
This is not a song that is included for the quality of the song or the performance of the singers. The period of the “New Romantics” did very little for me, if I am to be honest.
It is here simply because of some very good sax work by Andy Hamilton and some good bass guitar. It is a very 80s-type song that Hamilton gives an edge to, and he creates a memorable solo. That is one of the things the song is most famous for.
It is played at a frantic pace that breaks in the middle, which is where you will find one of the most famous saxophone solos in Pop music history. Listen out for John Taylor’s very nice bass line, played on an active bass. It reached #9 in the UK and #14 in America.
Just the Way You Are by Billy Joel
Sax Solo by Phil Woods
Billy Joel wrote some great songs, and this is one of his best. It was taken from his album, The Stranger, from 1977.
Whilst it is a typically excellent song from “the piano man,” it does have something a little extra. The sax solo is played by a Jazz legend, Phil Woods. Woods has been touring since the 50s and has made many great recordings in that time. He has worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, and Buddy Rich. Illustrious company.
Not Everyone was Happy
… Joel’s entourage was, but an element of the Jazz community was not. Jazz musicians playing on Pop records are considered by some to be a ‘come-down’ in musical status. However, Woods had already played on recordings with Paul Simon and Steely Dan.
Crossing over sometimes between Jazz and Pop or Rock doesn’t mean that you have deserted Jazz at all. But, what it does mean is that a whole new range of people gets to hear these guys who might not have heard them before. Not a bad thing, in my view.
“Just The Way You Are” reached #19 in the UK and #3 in America. A great track from a great performer and writer made even better by some great sax work by one of the best of his era.
Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty
Sax Solo by Raphael Ravenscroft
So we get down to the penultimate choice on our list of the most famous saxophone solos in Pop music history. Is there anyone that does not recognize this song after the first few notes are played?
Written and recorded by Scottish singer, songwriter, and comedian Billy Connolly’s ex-bandmate, Gerry Rafferty, this was a sensation when it came out. It was released in 1978 and was taken from his second album, City to City. It was named after Baker Street in London. The song reached #3 in the UK and #2 in America.
It was especially noted for two things…
Firstly, a stunning but tasteful guitar solo played by Scottish guitarist Hugh Burns. But, if that wasn’t enough, there was Raphael Ravenscroft’s eight-bar sax solo that was played between verses.
There is a demo of Rafferty playing the part on the guitar. He plays it quite well, but it doesn’t have the impact of Ravenscroft’s sax. And that is what we all remember. I mean, how could we forget it?
Just Like Grover
We looked at Grover Washington’s solo on “Just The Two Of Us” earlier. It is thought that he played slightly flat. If he did, it would be deliberate to create the feel. This is another example.
It is thought that Ravenscroft is doing the same and playing slightly flat. There could be several reasons for this, even the way it was mixed. But, whatever the reason, it had the impact of making it better, just like Grover.
A great piece of sax playing from a memorable song.
Still Crazy After All These Years by Paul Simon
Sax Solo by Michael Brecker
So let’s complete this look at great sax solos on Pop songs with this. In my opinion, the best of the bunch.
The song was taken from Simon’s fourth studio album of the same name, Still Crazy After All These Years. It had a limited release as a single and only reached #40 in America.
Who Does He Refer To?
This song is typical of Paul Simon when he decides to open up to his audience. It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does, it is powerful. And this is powerful.
The opening words set a scene, “I met my old lover on the street last night.” I always wonder who he refers to. Is it the wife he had just been divorced from? Or maybe he wrote it on one of his many trips to the UK, and it could be his English ex-girlfriend, Kathy?
But, then, we get a little clue. It’s been a while since they met up, as he says, “She seemed so glad to see me – I just smiled – And we talked about some old times – And we drank ourselves some beers – Still crazy after all these years.”
All these years?
Anyway, I digress. We are not trying to appreciate the meaning of what he says. We are talking about that unforgettable sax solo on a Pop song and the man who played it, Michael Brecker.
Sometimes, we hear a piece of music, and it moves us. And, no matter how many times we hear it, it still moves us. One of those for me is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Another is this track, and especially that sax solo.
Wherever I am and whatever I am doing…
When I hear it, I just have to stop what I am doing. The music and that solo take over. And now, to continue writing about it, I need to listen to it. I shall be back soon; it is about to “take over.”
Yep, it still does it. A masterpiece of songwriting and a masterful Pop music sax solo performance. Is there a word to describe it? Probably not. The only thing I can think of is that it has passion, pure passion.
For me, nothing else comes close, and there have been some great sax solos on this list.
Are You a Fan of the Saxophone?
Well, then, you may like our thoughts on the Top Famous Saxophone Musicians You Should Know, the Best Jazz Saxophone Players, Is Saxophone Hard to Learn, and First & Easiest Songs You Should Learn on Saxophone for loads of useful saxophone information.
Also, if you are a sax player, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Yamaha Saxophones, the Best Selmer Saxophones, the Best Alto Saxophones, the Best Tenor Sax Mouthpieces, the Best Alto Sax Mouthpieces, and the Best Saxophone Neck Straps you can buy in 2023.
The Most Famous Saxophone Solos in Pop Music History – Final Thoughts
If nothing else, this list proves that the saxophone can make a great song even better. In the right hands, of course. The tones it creates, the endless possibilities for subtle influences, and the nuances that the great musicians can conjure up. They all add up to a unique sound.
It is fair to say it has everything as an instrument. It can fit into marching bands, it can play great Rock n Roll, wonderful Jazz, and add sadness to ballads.
I should imagine that if Adolphe Sax could see how his instrument developed and became so important in music, he would be rather surprised. But, also, very pleased.
Until next time, happy listening.