Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sax at the Restaurant

Today I get another opportunity to correct something I wrote. On Sunday, when I delivered my bonus post on “Washington Square,” I deduced that David Shire’s contribution to the composition was the lyric. Not so. Bobb Goldsteinn wrote the supremely visual folk lyrics himself, after his publisher, Duke Niles, told him that either Bobb would write lyrics for the suddenly successful tune, or Duke would find someone who would write them. So, after two years of sitting on the song, Duke was in a hurry. David Shire’s contribution to the song is far more tenuous than co-writing credits would indicate. If you missed that bonus post, scroll down below this one.

And now, today’s post:

There comes a moment in every audiophile’s life when he or she realizes that music is the absolute essence of artistic expression. I probably was figuring that out before I turned three, thanks to my passion for my parents’ vinyl, followed closely by Uncle Tom’s gifts of five-cent 45s. But as much as I loved some of my 45s, my first musical out-of-body experience came when I was at my grandparents’ restaurant, the Dwyer Café in Shoals, Indiana.

Sometime around my third birthday in May, 1963, we packed up the Oldsmobile and drove to Shoals. Later on we made a couple of trips by passenger train on the Monon Line, but I know this trip was by car, because it’s the trip on which my dad locked me in the trunk. It was also more than a year before we drove with my grandparents into Hurricane Cleo.

When we got to Shoals, we went straight to the restaurant and, as usual, something was playing on the jukebox. Though it would not take me long to score a nickel for my own play, I know I didn’t randomly punch up “Yakety Sax” by Boots Randolph (Monument 804). The song had hit the Hot 100 on February 23, 1963, and reached #35 in its three-week Top 40 life, beginning March 30. It was mostly a has-been when I first heard it.

The song didn’t climb high enough to make Chicago pop radio, and it was essentially a country song, but it didn’t make the country Top 40 at all. What happened when someone did play “Yakety Sax” on the jukebox was that I sat mesmerized for the entire two minutes of the song. My parents were used to that behavior from me, but at the moment they didn’t know I had experienced a couple of epiphanies at once.

I learned then that a stunning amount of joy could be crammed into two minutes of music. I learned also that the saxophone was an instrument of incomparable beauty. I announced shortly thereafter that “Yakety Sax” was my favorite song. I hadn’t said such a thing before.

Fred Foster, the owner of Monument Records, produced the hit version. Foster produced many Roy Orbison hits, and he co-wrote “Me and Bobby McGee” with Kris Kristofferson. As for the Nashville Sound musicians who played on the tune, I can guarantee that Floyd Cramer is on piano, but I don’t have confirmation of any others.

It’s almost unfair that I include “Yakety Sax” in this blog, because I didn’t own the 45 until I was a teen. But it was available to me for a nickel at a time on the jukebox, and I didn’t need to have a copy at home. I had it memorized and could recall it any time I wanted.

Homer Louis Randolph was born in Paducah, Kentucky on June 3, 1927. He learned to play a number of instruments but settled on the saxophone as a teen. When he got out of the U.S. Army in 1946, he started playing professionally. Chet Atkins hired him to do RCA studio work for the likes of Perry Como. Boots first recorded “Yakety Sax” on RCA 7395 in 1959, but his re-recording for Monument in 1963 was the hit. He wrote it with James “Spider” Rich (1923-2003), who wrote other material for Chet Atkins in the 1950s and 1960s.

Around 1961 Boots moved to Nashville at the request of the primary session men, including piano player Floyd Cramer and guitarist Chet Atkins. Boots was the first sax player on Elvis tunes, and he appeared on the soundtracks to eight Elvis films. He played sax on a couple of 1964 hits: “Oh, Pretty Woman” for Roy Orbison and “Java” for Al Hirt. His musical relationship with Brenda Lee included “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “I Want to Be Wanted” and “I’m Sorry.” For a bit of variety, he played the sax part on REO Speedwagon’s version of “Little Queenie.”

Boots charted three other Hot 100 hits, but that was the extent of his solo chart success. It’s clear, though, that his legacy among 1960s session players as an architect of the Nashville Sound is secure. You can see him as part of the band on Hee Haw reruns as well.

Active into his late 70s, Boots Randolph died on July 2, 2007 at age 80. Some 44 years after his big hit reworked my musical consciousness, the man who is responsible for the disproportionate amount of sax music in my collection was gone. I never got to see him play, but I did get to thank him for the song, and that will have to do.

At the Lake County Fair, in Crown Point, Indiana later in 1963, a band was playing in one of the barns. They would play any song for a dollar or so. My parents and I sat on hay bales to listen, and during one lull, I asked my dad to see if they knew “Yakety Sax.” They knew it, so they played it for me. And I asked for it again. And they played it, for another dollar. After the fourth straight play, my mom told me they were tired of playing “Yakety Sax,” so we would be going. I couldn’t see well enough to detect any looks of aggravation from the band, but they probably were glad to see three-year-old caithiseach leave the building.

I suppose that event was my revenge on my dad for locking me in the trunk of the Oldsmobile. As we were packing for the trip, I asked if I could sit in the trunk while he packed it. He let me do that. When he stepped away from the car, I pulled the trunk lid down till there was just a crack of sunlight. He came back and closed the trunk, and the sudden darkness made me scream. He opened the trunk immediately, but I have been able to tell people for 45 years that my dad locked me in the trunk of the family car. Or, to those using a British vocabulary, the boot of the car. That dovetails nicely.

Thanks, Boots, for the song, and thanks to all of you for reading. Even if you know the song well, listen to it again for the fist time. Note that you can hear the drummer (Buddy Harman?) pick up his drumsticks.

Next time, I’ll tell you about a Ground to Dust tune that I recalled several years later when I went off to summer camp for the first time. See you Saturday!

Boots Randolph, Yakety Sax


Stephanie said...

I feel like checking to see if Benny Hill is on cable now...

stackja1945 said...

Boots made a big impression. The music lives on.
Song credits are always debatable.
As Harrison found out.