Like many of us saxed-up hornies, Bowie learned to work the saxophone in his early youth. His older half-brother reportedly turned him on to modern jazz in the ’50s, and his parents gifted him a saxophone in 1961. He was soon taking lessons from noted baritone saxophonist Ronnie Ross.
Bowie incorporated sax into much of his music throughout his career. As a player myself, I was jazzed to learn that Bowie often played the saxophone on his recordings. He was always experimenting in the studio, typically using the horn as a rhythm instrument or as part of an atmospheric layer.
Rock mythology often attributes the iconic baritone sax solo in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” from Transformer to Bowie. As that record’s producer, Bowie wisely brought in his old sax teacher, Ronnie Ross, to play that solo.
Bowie allegedly claimed that the sax “defied him,” but occasionally he did step out and feature himself blowing a solo. Here are three of my favorite moments:
from the 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
This apocalyptic love song is one of my favorite tracks from the landmark Ziggy album. It’s notable for its complex time signature, shifting between 2/4 and 7/4, and its commentary on the twisted nature of love. Bowie plays rhythm sax in the second verse, and his yearning solo starts after the second verse (around 01:29). Nice trill, Mr. Stardust!
from the 1973 album Pinups
“Sorrow” was originally recorded in the States by The McCoys, later in the U.K. by The Merseys. The song is largely unknown in the States, but was a big hit in the U.K. Originally a sheepish teenage blues, Bowie followed The Merseys’ lead and gave his version a mournful, romantic reading. His delicate, defiant sax solo starts around 01:08 and features a baritone sax counterpoint from Ken Fordham.
from the 1971 album Hunky Dory
Probably the best known of Bowie’s sax turns. He plays a tenor lick in the verse, and his sultry tag happens at 03:12. Here, as in most instances, he plays in an R&B style. Bowie on sax makes ch-ch-change sound positively alluring.