Five Of Rock and Roll’s Sax-iest Musicians

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Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen on 9/6/78 in Chicago, Il. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)

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A Woodwind Of Emotions

Yes, the saxophone is a woodwind instrument but it’s made of brass! Just like the various genres the saxophone is utilized in- it bridges gaps between two types of sounds-  like jazz/rock, prog/rock, and blues/rock. Named after it’s inventor, Adolphe Sax, the saxophone is an invention of the industrial era. Makes sense right? With the ability to replicate the human voice, the saxophone is an individual band member.

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Though, there are some saxophone players that have harnessed the instrument with unexpurgated talent. These are the “sax-iest” musicians in rock…


King Curtis

Curtis Montgomery’s title is no mistake- he is the KING. The Texas native  moved to NY and became a session musician in 1953. Buddy Holly is among his most famous employers. Curtis was gifted the songwriting credit for “Reminiscing,” by Holly. Under Atlantic records he worked with Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, and the Beatles.

1st September 1968: American R&B musician King Curtis, aka Curtis Ousley (1934-1971), plays the tenor saxophone during a performance at the ‘Soul Together’ concert at Madison Square Garden, New York City. The photo was taken for Vogue magazine. (Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

King Curtis was fatally stabbed while standing his ground to 2 criminals outside of his home. The musician was 37 years old. Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder sang at his funeral. The service was administered by Jesse Jackson in the fall of 1971.

The saxophonist was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 6, 2000. 


Captain Beefheart

Don Glen Vilet became friends with Frank Zappa as a teenager and their first recording together was “Lost In A Whirlpool.”  The two started touring together in 1975.

Captain Beefheart became the frenzied Salvador Dali of the saxophone world. He had honking sax solos that were either improvised or heavily influenced by the avant-garde. He is known most for his work in The Magic Band.


Clarence Clemons

Known as The Big Man, for his stature of 6’5″, the tenor saxophonist was a force of nature. He was the most prolific member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band from 1972 until his death in 2011.

The Virginia native was given his first sax when he was 9, as a Christmas present from his dad. He became heavily influenced by King Curtis and started his musical journey. He attended Maryland State College on a dual scholarship of football and music.

MINNEAPOLIS – MAY 10: Saxophonist Clarence Clemons of Brue Springsteen and the E. Street Band performs in Minnesota on May 10, 1988. (Photo by Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The Big Man was a major philanthropist for Home Safe, a non-profit that helped victims of child abuse and domestic violence. He often held concerts for them. He was heavily involved with family and when he passed away in 2011, his nephew Jake Clemons, was introduced as the new saxophonist of the E Street Band.

“His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. He was my great friend, my partner, and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band,” Bruce Springsteen.


Rudy Pompilli

Born as Rudolph Clement “Pompilii” in 1924, the Pennsylvania native quickly achieved success as a saxophonist. In 1955 he joined Billy Haley and His Comets. Instantly, he became the band’s most extroverted and famous player.

He is best known for his on stage rolling and diving with his saxophone. Pompili set the bar for showmen of the high energy, rock and roll saxophone world. Rudy Pompilli died of lung cancer in 1976, attributed to second hand tobacco smoke. Bill Haley was so distraught over the saxophonist’s death that he retired and moved to Mexico.

Rudy Pompilli was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.


Herb Hardesty

Herb Hardesty was born in the saxophone’s heaven on Earth: New Orleans, Louisiana on March 3, 1925. He started with the trumpet at age 6 . By the time he was 14, he was being paid to play with bands from Papa Celestin to the Chick Webb orchestra.

In 1941, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, despite being 2 years under-age. At the Air Corps in Jackson, Mississippi, he volunteered to play the sax in the band. Hardesty’s commanding officer was so impressed that he personally bought him his own saxophone to practice on. The musician learned to play the instrument in 2 days. He became part of the Tuskegee Airmen, playing sax on his spair time with European musicians.

Saxophonist Herbert Hardesty (C) playing his instrument on floor as rhythm section of Fats Domino’s band accompanies him in Don’t You Know, at 54 Ballroom. (Photo by Loomis Dean/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

When Herb returned to New Orleans in the late 1940s, he started recording with Fats Domino, eventually becoming a member of his band. Herb Hardesty went on to perform with Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, James Brown, and helped Ray Charles organize his band for the 1953 tour. 

Herb passed away at the age of 91 from cancer.

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