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David Sanborn: Kirkwood native looks back on the music

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 25, 2008 - Famed saxophonist David Sanborn still makes it back to the St. Louis area a few times a year, to visit his mom and his old home town of Kirkwood, and to drive around looking for landmarks of his time growing up here.

"I do the old standard drive down memory lane kind of thing," Sanborn, 63, says. "Drive to all those places where I used to hang out and wonder why they're not there anymore. Like Gaslight Square. It's gone."

Sanborn is right to bemoan St. Louis' tendency to plow under its past - as well as much of its musical legacy. But the city also provided Sanborn with pockets of culture - however hard they were to find - that launched him on a musical odyssey that's lasted more than four decades.

While still in high school, Sanborn jammed with the likes of Albert King and Little Milton Campbell. He later moved to California and joined the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and played with them at Woodstock. He toured with Stevie Wonder and David Bowie and played numerous sessions, sitting in with the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Gil Evans, James Taylor, George Benson, Eric Clapton and many others.

His own albums, starting with "Taking Off" in 1975, have sometimes been relegated to the smooth jazz category, but Sanborn's distinctive playing, filled with the R&B, blues and jazz influences of his youth, have allowed his albums such as "Voyeur," "Straight to the Heart," "Another Hand" and "Time Again" to rise about the easy-listening limitations of the genre.

Sanborn's latest album, "Here & Gone" brings him back to some of his early enthusiasms - the music of Ray Charles, and specifically the work of Charles' sax players, Hank Crawford and David "Fathead" Newman. Sanborn recently spoke at length with the Beacon about the album, his life in music, and his days in the St. Louis area.

Q: This album is a return to your roots in blues and R&B music. Where exactly did a white kid from Kirkwood acquire those roots?

A: Initially it was radio and records. The time I was growing up, it was the mid-'50s, which is kind of the beginning of the mass popularity of rhythm and blues and the early days of rock and roll. People like Fats Domino and Little Richard all had horns in their band. I think Little Richard had like five saxophones. The same with Fats Domino. In Fats Domino's case, all the New Orleans players - people like Lee Allen, Red Prysock, Clifford Scott, who played saxophone on the Bill Doggett "Honky Tonk" record. That was a huge record for me. Just the sound of the record.

The saxophone was just such an expressive instrument for me. Before I even thought about playing it, it always kind of drew me - the sound of it. It was the pervasive solo instrument in pop music at the time. Not only in rhythm and blues and jazz, obviously, but also in mainstream pop music. People like Jimmy Dorsey were making pop records, and Earl Bostic. Billy May. So it was pretty much everywhere in the culture.

Q: Was there a certain place you bought records, or a certain radio show you listened to back then?

A: I listened to radio station KATZ. There was a deejay who really, through the years, was a major influence on me just in terms of what he played. Two guys, actually. One was a guy named Spider Burks and the other was Leo Chears. Those guys, the music they played, it was so full of life. And for a kid in the suburbs, it was like, wow, there's something out there that's really very interesting. I just found myself more and more drawn to it, whatever that experience was. Certainly it wasn't anything I could articulate at the time.

Q: I've heard you talk before about getting to see some of your musical heroes play concerts ... at St. Louis Hawks games?

A: Yeah. There was a year - I think it was just for a year ... - after the basketball games at Kiel Auditorium, they would have concerts by bands: people like Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Ray Charles. I remember at one of the games, Ray had the band do half an hour or 45 minutes before he came on. Hank Crawford and David "Fathead" Newman were in that band. And both of those guys, especially Hank, had such an effect on me. I think I was 11 years old. I'd been sick when I was a kid. I had polio when I was a kid, and the doctors said I should play a wind instrument for therapy. By that time, having heard all this stuff on the radio and then hearing Hank and "Fathead" play with Ray Charles - that was kind of it for me. I said, "I want to play the saxophone."

Q: How did you encounter and then wind up playing with guys like Albert King and Little Milton Campbell?

A: There used to be these things in St. Louis called Teen Towns, which were basically dances. And there was a place not far from where I lived. It was called the Sunset something. It had a swimming pool, it was like a rec center. It was not run down, but kind of low-rent. But it was great, because they used to have local bands playing there. Guys like Bob Kuban and Jules Blattner and the Teen Tones. And they'd have regional band come through there, two of which were Little Milton and Albert King. This friend of mine I grew up with, we would go hang out at these Teen Towns, and we became friendly with Little Milton's piano player

I don't remember exactly how it happened, but we kind of finagled our way into having Milton let me sit in with him. There was another saxophone player who was playing with Milton as well. It wasn't like I was playing by myself. They were very gracious and they each showed me what to play. I just kind of played background stuff, but actually being up there onstage, playing with these incredible musicians at that age - I was 15 - it was just such a rush.

Q: Did this get you any street cred back at Kirkwood High, or was it something you had to kind of keep to yourself?

A: No, this wasn't anything that garnered me any of that at all. St. Louis at that time was very racially segregated. My high school had only been integrated for a couple of years before I got there. It was a Jim Crow town, man. All the movie theaters were segregated. So when people recall, "Oh, the good old days and how great things were back in the '50s...", well, it really depends on your perspective. Maybe for some people, but for a lot of people, it wasn't so great. The black community in St. Louis was very isolated.

I have to say, especially in retrospect, it was amazing that I encountered very little hostility whenever I was involved in situations that were primarily African American, whether it was a club or whatever musical situation. If it was there, I certainly didn't feel it. That had a profound effect on me. It was remarkable to me that I had all these opportunities to participate in music that I genuinely loved and - I can say this now - in a real way gave me my life. Not just my living, my way of making my living. It gave me my life.

Q: One of the things that separates you from other saxophone players is your distinct voice on the instrument - the tone and the emotion of your playing. People instantly know it's you. How did that develop?

A: It was never anything conscious on my part. I was like everybody else. I'm the product of my influences. Early on, those people I named earlier, Hank Crawford and David "Fathead" Newman were the two most influential guys for me. Just in terms of phrasing, sound. So, I was trying to imitate those guys initially. Then I heard guys like Jackie McLean, Phil Woods, Cannonball Adderley. Even Paul Desmond. Paul Desmond always reminded me of Lester Young. Just in his lines and the logic of what he played. When I heard him before I heard Lester Young, and when I heard Lester Young, I said, "Oh, I get it. That's where Paul Desmond comes from."

My point is, I picked up bits and pieces from a lot of different people, but I always gravitated toward the bluesier, earthier guys. I think Hank and "Fathead" and Phil Woods. I love Phil's sound. I don't think anyone would necessarily hear a lot of Phil Woods in my playing. But those are guys I listened to and kind of tried to imitate.

Q: You've been called on for session work by so many folks: Stevie Wonder and Springsteen and the Stones and Bowie. Do you have any favorite memories out of some of those experiences?

A: I never really made my living in the studio as a session musician. I was really just a sideman and I would play sometimes for people I wasn't working with because it was a friend of the producer or I met them on the road or something like that. I was not one of those saxophone-for-hire guys. I never fit that profile 'cause I wasn't in that mix of studio musicians.

But having the opportunity to do a variety of things was really appealing to me. It allowed me to put my particular kind of playing into different contexts. And what I realized early on was that I wasn't playing any differently with Gil Evans, say, than I was with David Bowie. I was only reacting to whatever the harmonic rhythmic context was in a different way. But my essential approach to playing was the same - my sound, my phrasing. And fortunately for me, I've been very lucky that all the people who have hired me have hired me to just be myself.

Q: You presided over one of the great music TV shows of all time, "Sunday Night"/"Night Music." What do you remember about that show?

A: I remember every week that we did it, feeling such a great sense of enthusiasm for what we were doing. For me, it was like being a kid in a candy store, getting all those great people on who were heroes of mine. And the fact that we got such a wide cross-section of music on there: everybody from Sun Ra to Al Green to Conway Twitty to Miles Davis to Eric Clapton. Randy Newman, the Pixies. I had "Fathead" Newman on and Hank Crawford and Stanley Turrentine, Dizzy Gillespie. All these great musicians. Not only did we get them on to do their stuff individually, but we managed to put together some pretty interesting musical combinations, like Leonard Cohen playing with Sonny Rollins.

Q: I think my favorite was Conway Twitty with the Residents dancing behind him in their eyeball costumes.

A: Singing "Teddy Bear." (It was actually "When You're Cool") That's the one that kind of blew the sponsors out a little. I remember the guy from Michelob coming in and saying, "What was that?" I said, "No, no, it's cutting edge, it's art, the kids love it." You know, whatever you have to say. But they were actually very supportive of the show for the two years we did it.

Q: We're never going to see that on DVD, are we?

A: I'll tell you what the big hangup is. It's getting clearances. Not from the artists, but from the publishers, the music publishers. We got the record company clearances, we got artist clearances, but the people who are holding on to the publishing rights of the songs, it's like, what are you waiting for? Half the (stuff) is on YouTube. The cat's already totally out of the bag and you're like, making deals for what?

The great thing for me about that show is not just the response from the general public, but from musicians. I was someplace and Eddie Vedder came over to me and started taking to me about how much he loved the show. He was taking about specific shows he'd seen. Bruce Springsteen has said stuff to me about it -- how much they loved the show and wanted to get copies of it. I said, listen, it's like my version of 'write your congressman.' Let's get a letter writing campaign together and get these (guys) off the dime. For me this is not an issue about money. Let's just get it out there. It represents to me, a very important principal that I feel about music: that musicians of seemingly widely diverse backgrounds, have a lot more in common than most people think.

Q: Somewhat like "Night Music," you have some great guest artists playing on "Here and Gone." How did you pull them into the project?

A: I compiled a list of people I wanted to get and these are the people I wanted to get. Eric (Clapton), because he's a friend of mine and he's Eric Clapton. He's such a great singer and player. I called him up and asked him if he would consider singing on the record, and he said, "You mean you don't want me to play, too? And I said (sarcastically), "Well, yeah, if you have to."

I think what's great about the tune that he played and sang on was that he really, he understands the blues. And he really was able to inhabit that song. And what he played is so interesting to me because he plays only in the middle and lower range of his instrument. There's nothing up in the high end. So he sonically left that room for me. 'Cause he knew that was the right thing to do. When you're dealing with people who just instinctively know what the right thing to do is and don't think about it as a vehicle, an ego trip, and have the humility to serve the music - these are the kind of people I want to be involved with.

The same holds true with Joss Stone, this young girl who is barely out of her 20s, from Devon, England, singing with the soul and conviction of somebody three times her age. And once again, able to claim that song as her own, which is no easy task, given that it was not only written by, but pretty much identified with Ray Charles.

Sam Moore is like the Pavarotti of soul. The power in his voice. To be able to deliver a song like that, you need somebody like Sam Moore.

Q: The song "Brother Ray" is one you've recorded it before, but given the theme of the album, I guess it was right to revisit it.

A: I think so. As I was putting this thing together, "Brother Ray" was a tune I'd been doing on the road. I was really fond of it and I realized it really kind of fits into the spirit of what this music is about. Because it's really kind of a look back at some of the places where I came from musically, specifically the music of Ray Charles. Hank Crawford -- Hank's arrangements - was kind of where I started with this whole thing. 

Dan Durchholz is a freelance journalist.

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