I have to give Jack Black credit for inspiring this week’s list. His Instagram account includes regular posts reflecting his love of music. A couple of days ago he spotlighted the sax solo from the song “Urgent” by Foreigner.
“Urgent” comes from the album 4, which was produced by Robert “Mutt” Lange. It’s a different sound for the rockers that had cut their chops on earlier songs like “Hot Blooded,” “Cold As Ice,” and “Head Games.” As the story goes, they wanted a “Junior Walker sounding sax solo” and ended up with Junior Walker himself, who was performing nearby.
What Junior Walker does on this song is nothing short of massive. I’m not sure there’s a better example of a saxophone solo that’s more rock. For goodness sakes, Walker stands in for what should be a guitar solo, and he does it with both soul and dirty rockin’ chops.
It got me thinking about other songs that have massively successful sax solos and that still manage to maintain their rockness.
And so here we go…
5. “Shotgun” (Junior Walker & the All Stars)
This is likely the song that inspired the desire for a “Junior Walker sounding sax solo” in “Urgent.” And I’ll be the first to admit it’s probably a bit of a cheat to call this just “rock.” The 1965 hit is classic rock and roll, which is really just a way of saying it moves like nobody’s business. It’s a miraculous number, driven by Walker’s sax and his soulful brilliance.
4. “Money” (Pink Floyd)
When I studied abroad in England I met a generation of Brits who believed (passionately) that Pink Floyd’s 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon was the greatest album ever made. I’ve met my fair share of others who’ve felt the same. I’ve never been one of those people. I like Pink Floyd, I’m just not crazy about them. For the purposes of this list, though, there’s no way to avoid them. Fans might rank the classic “Us and Them” as a better sax song, but that’s a bit too soft and meditative for me. “Money” kicks off side 2 of the album, and it knows how to get up in everybody’s business with Dick Parry’s tasty solo.
3. Brown Sugar (Rolling Stones)
This is the lead off track to the Stones’ 1971 album Sticky Fingers. It’s their first album without Brian Jones and their first of the 70s. “Brown Sugar” is such a brilliant reflection of the past and the future for them. Recorded in Muscle Shoals before much of the rest of the album (I think it’s actually from 1969), it’s rhythm and blues to be sure, but also undeniably rock. It’s a standout for the lyrics by Mick Jagger, but also the way Keith Richards’ guitar and Bobby Keys’ sax play with each other to make the song what it is. There’s not many Stones songs where Keys is more instrumental (pardon the pun).
2. “Young Americans” (David Bowie)
Bowie’s 1975 Young Americans was a big hit for him, as was the title track, released a month before the album. While it may not have impressed the critics, it’s an enjoyable album, a more soulful sounding Bowie with clear nods to US sounds. I’ve always been more of a Ziggy Stardust-phase fan, on the whole, but there are plenty of David Bowie tracks after that that I love. “Young Americans” is certainly one of them. The sax–played here by David Sanborn–is a big part of that. The interplay between Bowie’s voice, his background singers (who are pretty front and center), and the soulful Sanborn (who became a successful jazz performer in the years after) makes it one of the master’s persistent hits.
1. “Born to Run” (Bruce Springsteen)
I’m not a Bruce fanatic. I honestly had never heard of him before his 1984 album Born in the U.S.A was released. And while I liked it, I just never felt the need to learn more about him until much later in life. It must have been about 20 years after the release of Born to Run (1975) before I discovered it. That might have been the start of my appreciation for his talents. [My friend, Steven Rubio, who certainly is a fanatic, has helped nurture that admiration, just by being a big fan. It’s kind of catchy at some point. That brought me to his earlier stuff, in particular 1973’s Greetings from Ashbury Park, N.J. which I am also very fond of.] I know hardcore fans will say “Jungleland” is the best Bruce sax song. I can’t argue. Clarence Clemons was a master, and he shows it in the sprawling, emotional song. But I think “Born to Run” is a clearer example of a rock song, and a masterful rock-sax solo. The song is quite simply “BIG”–it’s Springsteen’s attempt to create his own Phil Spector-like wall of sound–and it’s a success at every level. The nostalgic lyrics, the orchestration of rock and roll instruments, and, of course, Clemons’ massive sax. You just can’t go wrong.