A little yakety sax for your Thursday!
One of my grandmothers had a bunch of old records that she would let me look through, and one of them was a Boots Randolph album. Randolph was famous for the record entitled “Yakety Sax”, the title tune of which became the Benny Hill theme song and was used in many other tv commercials and themes, but I only remember listening to Randolph’s version of “Moon River”, which I would play on my grandma’s record player over and over.
Much, much later I would discover one of Randolph’s contemporaries and the soloist that influenced his “Yakety Sax” composition: King Curtis. Although I didn’t know his name when I was younger, I had in fact heard Curtis’ playing already; he was Aretha Franklin’s bandleader for years and was a mainstay session musician for Atlantic Records.
I didn’t know anything about King Curtis until college. Thanks to Professor Larry Starr’s class on mid-20th century Popular Music, I listened to Curtis’ solos on recordings by the Coasters. “Yakety Yak” was the first one I heard, and the first time I really thought about that type of playing as a unique and specialized style of playing the saxophone. Since then I’ve heard it referenced in various ways: “Texas Tenor”, “Ballads and Blues Tenor”, or just “Rhythm & Blues Saxophone” (although each of these labels encompass a LOT more of their own characteristics). I’ve even heard “yakety sax” as a term for this style!
Since then, I’ve listened to a bit more of King Curtis, especially his album Live at the Fillmore West, but there’s a lot more out there. Here’s a transcription of Curtis’ solo on “Yakety Yak” to give you a taste: