The saxophone just doesn’t get the love it deserves in today’s popular music. But there was a time when the sax was revered — the 1980s. During this golden era of sax appeal, there was rarely a top 40 hit that didn’t include a sweet sax solo. The saxophone has always been a sexy instrument and it deserves a spotlight that it rarely gets nowadays. So let’s pay homage during this month of love. Here, submitted in no particular order, is my list of ten saxy 80s hits.
“Careless Whisper” – George Michael – 1984
While there may be no particular order here, please understand that “Careless Whisper” is number one! Sure, some might try to argue and find some obscure track or something jazzy (that isn’t Kenny G), but when it comes to 80s pop gold George Michael and Wham! owned it. Steve Gregory’s sax solo in this song screams love and pain, and it also signaled the beginning of the end for Wham!. Often credited to “Wham! featuring George Michael,” the smoldering video showcases George Michael as the solo star he would soon become. Sorry Andrew — thanks for playing. (Click the title above to watch.)
“Smooth Operator” – Sade – 1987
Sade never disappoints and always brings the sax, played by Stuart Matthewman (aka Cottonbelly). This bachelor-pad, make-out staple is the tale of the international gigolo of the 80s and is a beautiful smooth jazz, sophisiti-pop hit. Check out Matthewman’s group, Sweet Back, and their killer body of work.
“You Belong to the City” – Glenn Frey – 1985
Of all the songs on this list nothing makes me want to play mouth saxophone more than saxist Bill Bergman’s work on this super-earnest nugget from the late Glenn Frey. And I always do it in a very exaggerated, over-the-top, “I hate the fuckin’ Eagles, man” kind of way.
“Urgent” – Foreigner – 1981
Hot sax solo by Motown legend Junior Walker makes this an easy pick for any saxophone top ten list. You may not know that Junior played the solo, but Mark Rivera played the super-hooky sax transition from the chorus back to the verse. Bonus fun fact: synthesizer courtesy of Mr. Thomas Dolby.
“Super Freak” – Rick James – 1981
Daniel LeMelle’s sax outro at the end of this pop-funk classic helps make the song the anthem that we know and love. Blow Danny!
“True” – Spandau Ballet – 1983
It’s true that people hate “True,” which is understandable due to its overexposure during the 80s and beyond at eighth-grade dances, senior proms, weddings, and Muzak versions that no one could get away from. But that Steve Norman sax, though! This could actually be the sound of my soul.
“Maneater” – Hall & Oates – 1982
The prolific Messrs Hall & Oates bring us one of many great sax-heavy songs featuring the talents of Charlie “Mr. Casual” DeChant. Watch out boys she’ll chew you up…
“Brass Monkey” – Beastie Boys – 1986
Early production work by Zen master Rick Rubin takes a short sax sample from the band Wild Sugar and turns it into a driving hip-hop beat on this dope sax track. Great example of the sax’s use as a rhythm instrument.
“Who Can it Be Now” – Men at Work – 1982
Saxy thunder from down under from these chundering blokes. The late Greg Ham’s sax really roars, blurts, and builds the tension in this mammoth single, a lyric we can all relate to.
“Never Say Never” – Romeo Void – 1981
Post-Punk band Romeo Void supplies us with some simple but punchy saxophone riffs from Benjamin Bossi on this early MTV favorite. Appropriately enough for this post, Romeo Void officially formed on Valentine’s Day 1979.