Saxy Songs of the 80s

Monday, April 15, 2013

It must be the toughest gig these days to be a saxophone-playing session musician--you just don't hear them anymore in most mainstream music. One recent exception is Lady Gaga's "Edge of Glory" which featured the late Clarence Clemons. She gets an A for effort in my book, but the song still falls short of the memorable pop and rock tunes that prominently featured a sax--songs that all these years later we still remember for their sultry solos or melodies. 

It's so strange to me that saxophones have disappeared as a pop music trend, as they're hip and sexy. And I'm sure we all know that no other decade personified the sax like the 80s did. It seems like every other song on the radio back then featured a saxophone. As with all other lists, this one is purely subjective...but here are the songs that had (in my opinion) the most memorable saxophones... 

"You Belong to the City" -- Glenn Frey
I was a big Miami Vice fan in the 80s, even though I was too young to know what was going on in every episode--the opportunity to drool over Don Johnson was my main motivation for watching the show. That, and the flashy clothing, cars and music. Miami Vice probably had the best soundtrack of any drama on TV at the time, and I still have a my copy...on cassette! One track that still stands out is Glenn Frey's "You Belong to the City" because of the repeating saxophone riff throughout. Frey played all instruments on the song except for the sax...that was accomplished by studio musician Bill Bergman. 

"Urgent" -- Foreigner
This list wasn't put together in any particular order, but if I had to pick one top 80s saxophone song it would have to be Foreigner's "Urgent." Motown sax legend Junior Walker played on the album version (as did Thomas Dolby on synthesizer.) The whole song just screams sex and it wouldn't be the same without Walker's sax riff and scorching solo. 

"Careless Whisper" -- Wham!
A list of notable saxophone songs would not be complete without "Careless Whisper", a song which got overplayed both on the radio and MTV (and which Brooke Shields thought was about her after her breakup with George Michael--ha!) Michael was only 17 when he composed the song on a bus and thought up the sultry sax rift himself.

"Smooth Operator" -- Sade
What makes "Smooth Operator" stand out is the sax plays a starring role throughout the song, vs. just having a short solo--just like the character Sade is singing about; a rich, promiscuous playboy. Stu Mathhewman played sax on the studio recording and in the music video. 

"Maneater" -- Hall and Oates
Charles DeChant has been a band member of Hall and Oates since the 1970s, and actually plays several instruments including flute, guitar and keyboards. But he's mainly a saxophone expert and "Maneater" was a song that definitely let his sax skills shine. A song with a title like "Maneater" deserves a saxophone. Daryl Hall has said that the track at the time wasn't like anything else on the radio. It reached number one on the U.S. charts in 1982 and stayed there for 4 weeks. 

"True" -- Spandau Ballet
Steve Norman (also pictured at Live Aid at the top of this post) was Spandau Ballet's saxophonist, but didn't start with the band that way--he was originally a guitarist. By the third album he introduced the sax to the group's sound, lending a much-needed sax solo to their big hit, "True." 

"Rio" -- Duran Duran
British saxophonist Andy Hamilton played with several 80s bands including Wham!, Pet Shop Boys and Duran Duran. He's the saxophone player we hear on the song "Rio" but in the music video, two members of Duran Duran mimic the playing: bassist John Taylor while on a cliff and keyboardist Nick Rhodes on a raft. Hamilton also contributed sax to another DD hit, "Union of the Snake."

"Who Can It Be Now?" -- Men at Work
Greg Ham from Men at Work played several instruments, but it's his saxophone playing on "Who Can It Be Now?" that no doubt made the song a hit and introduced the world to the new wave Australian band. 

There are dozens more songs out there and expanding the criteria here to include the 1970s would have brought Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel to the list. What are your most memorable saxophone songs?


  1. One of my favorite songs from the '80s which features sax is another Glenn Frey tune, "The One You Love." Whenever I hear it I get the urge to slow dance.

  2. Off topic, but great tribute in today's NY Times:

  3. Sax will always be present in jazz, but also provides serious punch in Ska type bands like Sinas, etc.

  4. Let's not forget Quarterflash's "Harden My Heart"

  5. I agreed with Quarterflash. The sax was played by lead singer Rindy Ross.
    Other great sax songs of the 80s would include "Walking In My Sleep" by Roger Daltrey, "Waiting On a Friend" by the Rolling Stones and "Same Ole Ange Syne" by Dan Folgleberg (Forgive my spelling).

  6. I just remembered there was another Glen Frey hit with a great sax part. I believe it was called "The One You Love."

  7. Madness "One Step Beyond" is basically one long sax solo.

  8. Quarterflash's "Harden My Heart" is a great one and I can't believe I forgot to include it! Thanks to all who mentioned it.

    A solo Frey favorite of mine is "True Love."

  9. Oh I thought you were going to include some John Tesh or Michael Bolton music - I'm sure there was sax in there as well, no?

  10. My Little Corner -- not familiar with any of John Tesh's songs...not really into Michael Bolton...I picked songs that I liked and remember most for their saxworthiness.

  11. Great post!! I remember fondly the sound of '80s music, so much more lush than today. You are right that the sound of sax seemed to permeate the '80s . . . I am reminded of the movie St. Elmos Fire where the incidental background music seemed to have sax often... and where one of the characters ("Billy") played sax in a band. ** sigh** To be back in the '80s, in the St. Elmo's Fire bar in my own mind, with a saxy song playing in the background.

  12. I did a list of my Top 20 80s Songs with Sax Solos several years ago and you may be interested in checking it out>

    I think you'd enjoy a lot of what we do over at Kickin' it Old School and hope you stop by often.

  13. Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" may not be technically 80's (1978), but surely its superb sax solo is what influenced all those subsequent solos in this article.

  14. Took way too long to get to Rafferty. I think that sax guy just passed on. The real sax scene, however, was '55 - '65. R&B, Surf,doo-wop, rock and pop all had a tenor (usually) wailing in the middle of the 2 and 1/2 minute tune.
    I grew up on this. and still wail on my tenor to this day.

  15. I absolutely love the sax in Martha & The Muffins' "Echo Beach"

  16. Double - Captain Of Her Heart (1985.
    So 80's, so Saxy.

  17. Double - Captain Of Her Heart (1985)
    So 80's,so saxy.

  18. Latevto to the party here - shout out to Whitney Houston's 'Saving All My Love For You' and Richard Marx's 'Endless Summer Nights' for featuring saxophones significantly and memorably!

  19. Tina Turner - Simply the Best, Hero, Tonight
    Rod Stewart - Baby Jane, Some Guys
    Spandau Ballet - Gold
    Bowie - Absolute Begginers
    Eurytmics - Thorn in My Side

  20. Tim Cappello - I still believe


Powered by Blogger.