Hi. This is Carol Handley and this podcast of Musicians on Mic, it’s saxophonist David Sanborn. Like many people, I began as a fan of his music and playing, but over the years in broadcasting, we got to know each other and all of our previous conversations have been about a particular album or tour, and we really never went back into the origin of his inspirations and his unique sound, which has been often imitated but never duplicated. For those of you who know David’s early story, he had polio as a child, and playing the wind instrument was also lung therapy, but he chose the saxophone versus another wind instrument.
We talk about starting his career playing with Paul Butterfield Blues Band, his Woodstock experience, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, and his work on Saturday Night Live, hosting the TV show Night Music and Paul Shaffer and The World’s Most Dangerous Band as well as his love for the late Ray Charles and saxophonist’s Hank Crawford and David “Fathead” Newman. We began at the beginning.
Carol: I’m going to take you back, very far back.
David: Oh, my god.
Carol: All the way back, my friend.
David: Go back in the wayback machine, Sherman.
Carol: To when and to whom you were born.
David: Well I was born in 1945 in Tampa, Florida, and my father was in the Air Force and he was stationed at an Air Force Base at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. Both my parents are from St. Louis, so I actually grew up in St. Louis. That’s really where I’m from. I was only coincidentally born in Tampa.
David: I have two younger sisters.
David: Not so you’d notice.
Carol: Was there music in your household growing up?
David: Not more than what there was in the average household at that point. My parents were music fans but I don’t think that there was a certainly a focus on music in my house. There was a lot of Benny Goodman records, Duke Ellington records, a lot of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.
Carol: How old were you when you started playing music?
David: I was 11 years old when I started playing saxophone.
Carol: Who handed you that instrument?
David: Well I was inspired to play by, I mean, there were a lot of saxophone players, a lot of saxophone music in the air when I was growing up. It was the solo instrument of rock and roll, for one, all the early rock and roll bands like Fats Domino and Little Richard all had big saxophone sections and there were always saxophone solos rather than guitar solos. It was pop music of the day, Jimmy Dorsey had pop hits and there were people like Earl Bostic who had a hit with Harlem Nocturne. There was a tune called Honky Tonk.
The music that really inspired me was Ray Charles and there were two great saxophone players in that band, Hank Crawford and David “Fathead” Newman. That was really the catalyst for me to want to play the saxophone. It was Ray Charles’ music. Because that music was a great combination of jazz, gospel, and rhythm and blues, so all the great forms of American music, in my opinion.
Carol: Did you learn on your own or did you have a teacher or did you play in school?
David: Well I was in the school band. I actually got kicked out of the grade school band because I couldn’t remember the fingerings for the notes. I had to write the fingerings above the notes and my band director called my parents in and said, “We have to kick David out of the band because he’s slowing down the other students.” There you go, and then I just listened to records and played on my own and later got in the junior high school band and, ironically, my junior high school band director was the same guy that kicked me out of my grade school band. He didn’t remember until I reminded him.
Carol: Fiesty little shit.
David: That’s right.
Carol: Going to learn this thing hell or high water.
David: That’s right.
Carol: Is there anybody that you were friends with then that you’re still friends with now?
David: Yeah. There was a drummer named Ted Stuart, who was actually very instrumental in my … In moving my career forward. He was a buddy of mine, a neighbor, and we were in grade school together, in junior high school, and he was a drummer and he was a very really adventurous kind of fearless guy. He ventured out pretty early into the downtown music places in St. Louis and dragged me along with him and we played a lot together. We played in high school bands together and we played in different clubs around St. Louis and he was, when I was in college at the University of Iowa, I went there for two years and prior to that, went to the Northwestern University.
I was at University of Iowa, it was 1967, and he called me up. He had just got into San Francisco and he said, “Man, you got to come out here. There’s some extraordinary stuff going on. I went out there and moved in with his band. They lived in a commune down in the Haight Ashbury and they had a band called the New Salvation Army Band. I happened to be walking down this street one day down on Haight Street and ran into another friend of mine, another drummer from St. Louis who had just joined the Butterfield Band, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and I went down and heard them play at the Fillmore Ballroom and hung out with the band and then ended up joining that band and don’t look back. Just that was it. I was a professional musician.
Carol: When your drummer friend was dragging you.
David: Yeah. He was pretty much responsible for it, and I saw him when I was in San Francisco recently. We’re still friends and we still talk from time to time and whenever I’m out there, he lives in San Francisco still and we see each other and we never, it’s like we’re back in grade school.
Carol: Is he still drumming?
David: Yeah. He actually worked for the Post Office after he had some personal problems, but he continued to play all during that time and now he’s retired from the Post Office and he’s playing full time.
Carol: Who were you guys going to see in St. Louis?
David: Well just different acts around town, different musicians around town, local musicians. I sat in with a blues band, a guy named Little Milton, and another great blues guitar player named Albert King. That was my first real professional playing experience. We were just kinda hanging out by the lip of the stage and a guy who we knew from another club down in downtown St. Louis happened to be playing piano with him, with Little Milton, and he said, “OH, yeah. Why don’t you… Little Milton said …asked …you guys want to sit in?” I told him, “You guys could play.” He let us sit in and that was a big thrill.
Carol: Do you remember the first album you ever bought?
David: I don’t. I don’t remember the first album I bought. I remember I was in the Columbia Records Club. The way that worked, you enrolled for whatever kind of section, whether it was jazz, classical, pop music, whatever, and I signed up for the jazz section. What they would do was they would send you an album and then you decided if you wanted it, and if you didn’t want it, you would send it back. A lot of the early albums I got were albums that they just sent me.
I remember I had a Benny Goodman record that was pretty amazing. I remember I had an Erroll Garner record, Concerts by the Sea. That was a great album. Those are the two that I recall off the top of my head. I think that one of the first records I ever bought that I remember buying was …I was at Woolworths and they had an album just was called Rock and Roll. This is like 1953, so this was really probably that term wasn’t more than a year or two old, if that. I remember it just had groups like I think the Orioles were on there and there was a tune called Cherry Pie, which was just completely filthy but I’m like nine years old, what do I know?
Carol: When you were with Mr. Butterfield. You got to play Woodstock. What are your memories?
David: Memories? You’ve got to be kidding. I have no memory. I just remember there was a whole lot of people. We were there on the last night. We were the second-to-last act to play Woodstock. Right? We went on right before Jimi Hendrix. It was dawn, really, when we were playing. The sun was coming up on the last day, and there were still several hundred thousand people there. It was pretty extraordinary. I’ve never seen that many people in one place before.
Carol: Not too many people have.
David: Yeah. It was pretty amazing. I just remember being a little burnt out at that point because we were supposed to go on at midnight and we’d been there since 5:00 in the afternoon, so we’d hung out basically 12-14 hours backstage getting what’s a good euphemism? Getting ready.
Carol: You were probably barely standing.
David: Well yeah. I think you’re probably right.
Carol: How did you hook up with Stevie Wonder?
David: Well I found out when Butterfield decided to take some time off, actually right before that, a good friend of mine was friends with Stevie’s producer at the time, a guy named Bob Margouleff. Bob Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil. She told me that Stevie was starting a band because he had really, he had just ah…had not released Music of My Mind, he just made that album and he hadn’t released it yet, and he wanted to go on the road and play his own music because prior to that, what he’d done, he would just go out with the Motown Machine with the arrangements and pick up musicians in whatever city he was in and I think he was tired of that. He wanted to have his own musicians, his own band, and play his own music rather than the stuff that he had up to that point been known for.
We went down and auditioned and we got the gig. Actually, the three horn players that were playing with Butterfield, so we just transitioned very easily into Stevie’s horn section.
Carol: How was it working with him?
David: He was fantastic. I remember one of the things I remember about him was that every day at sound check, he would come in with a new tune. Every day it was really amazing. I mean, he was one of the most prolific people I’ve ever been exposed to. It just and hard working, too. I mean, just worked really hard. He would take after the gig, he would have his crew take his synthesizer and clavinet and Fender Rhodes up to his hotel room and he would basically play all night, and then just sleep for a few hours and go to sound check and have a new tune, and then we do the gig, and he’d do the same thing. Night after night after night, I mean, just an incredible amount of creative energy.
Carol: Where did it go?
David: Yeah. Telling you.
Carol: Seriously. It’s amazing that he could be that creative and that intense for that period of time, which is pretty condensed.
David: Yeah, well I mean, I think it takes its toll. I mean, it just really after a while, you just, some of it’s just the energy of being young and some of it’s just, you just at a certain point you just you have to accept the fact that you’re human.
Carol: When you’re a songwriter like that, don’t you think there’s stuff floating around that head?
David: Yeah, I do, but I think that part is overplayed a little bit. I think there’s more hard work involved. What’s the cliché? It’s 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration, and I think that’s really true. Of course, people are inspired and creative but they get that way by you get creative by working hard. I mean, and the really prolific, all the songwriters that I worked with, James Taylor and Paul Simon, I mean, these guys work really hard.
They’re hardworking. They’re on the job. I mean, they’ve probably thrown away more songs than most people have written.
Carol: Yeah, probably. And now stuck in a hard drive somewhere. Bits and pieces of them.
Carol: That may one day see the light of day.
Carol: David Bowie.
David: Another hardworking guy. I got the gig with David Bowie through a friend of mine named Michael Camen, who later went on to be a great film composer, and we did a few movies together. All of the Lethal Weapon movies, the four Lethal Weapon movies. He and I and Eric Clapton did the music for that, for those, but Michael was a friend of mine and he had … Bowie had just hired him to be his musical director, and he was looking for a saxophone player and Michael recommended me, and I went on the road with him.
We went out. He had released and album called Diamond Dogs and we went on the road and did the music from that album, and then we went into the studio in Philadelphia and did Young Americans. What Bowie did on that record, which was really interesting, especially for me, was that it was just a rhythm section with a guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, drums, and saxophone, and I pretty much played the part of lead guitar, so there was no lead guitar on that whole record. It was me playing all the fills that a guitar player would normally play.
It was an interesting kind of texture and it certainly was a big shot for me, it gave me a lot of exposure. I mean, that album was huge for Bowie. I think it was his first really big album in the States.
Again, really incredibly hardworking and very much a guy part of the band kind of guy, which may surprise some people, but he’s very much a musician, and is into interacting on a really musical level with people in the band. You never got the feeling that you were backing him up, that he was always really part of the action and the exchange at which to me is the mark of a great musician.
Carol: Yeah, and still is also a really great entertainer.
David: Yeah, and on top of that, with a really keen awareness of stagecraft and every aspect of presenting music.
Carol: He’s really been so eclectic. That’s what I love about him, too.
David: Oh, he’s extraordinary. I mean, some of the music he’s made is just, I mean, has just been run the gamut.
Carol: About that time was your first solo CD (album).
David: Yeah. It was right about that time, ’75. A friend of mine, a guy who was a producer on the, produced all the Butterfield albums, Paul Butterfield albums, a guy named John Court, was friendly with Mo Ostin, who was the head of Warner Brothers Records. This was at the time I was playing with Bowie and also playing with Gil Evans, a great jazz arranger/composer who did Sketches in Spain with Miles Davis and also Porgy and Bess. I was working with both of them at the same time and this was also the same time that Warner Brothers was hiring instrumentalists or jazz musicians that were I guess it was called fusion music at the time. I always hated that term but for lack of a better word.
They were signing a lot of artists. I think, let’s see, Alice Coltrane got signed when I signed with Warner Brothers. A guy named Miroslav Vitous, a bass player, Wayne Shorter signed, Al Jarreau, George Benson, a guy named Pat Martino, guitar player. We all signed with Warner Brothers at the same time and that’s how that came about.
Carol: It’s very sad to see that label go away, but, well, they just had such a strong division for so long.
David: Yeah, they did. It was, but that’s the nature of the business now. I mean, everything’s changed so radically.
(Carol: David has lots of friends. Did you notice that? Seems the adage of who you know helps in the music business, too, but I believe it helps if you have a uniqueness that really lets you stand out, as well. David Sandborn has that in spades. When you can identify a player by the first note.)
Carol: How do you think you came up with your sound?
David: I was just trying to sound like my heroes, and, I mean, the short answer is that you play the sound that you hear in your head. Whatever that is, it’s a combination of just some kind of aesthetic thing or that mixed with the influence of your people that inspired you. I think it’s just a combination of all that. Your physiology plays into it. All of that stuff, but I mean it just has to do with a lot of those intangibles that you don’t know how much of this and how much of that really go into. It’s like making boulia base. Everybody does it different.
I think that, I mean, your sound is your signature, and I always related to people’s sound. It was always that aspect that really moved me. As much or more than what they were actually playing. It was the sound because that was who they were, it was that personality. I was just trying to play. Certainly in the early days, I was trying to emulate different people. I mean, it would be on certain songs, I’d sound a little more like Paul Desmond and on other songs, I’d sound a little more like Hank Crawford.
I mean, I think Hank Crawford was my model. Hank Crawford and David “Fathead” Newman were really those were the guys that were really my models for sound and attack and phrasing and time, time feel. Those are the guys that really were the foundation, the cornerstone of who I am as a player.
Carol: That’s come around, of course, because I talked to a lot of saxophone players, and when I ask them that question, they talk about you.
David: Well that’s interesting because, I mean, I never thought of myself as being that unique because I was just trying, I was just coming out of those guys. I mean, I’m just part of a continuum, really.
(Carol: David Sanborn has some long associations with iconic TV shows. He hosted a program called Night Music and many that performances we talked about, you can find on YouTube. It started with Saturday Night Live.)
Carol: Tell me about hooking up with Lorne Michaels.
David: Well I had, I was working with Paul Simon when Saturday Night Live started, and we actually did the second show. I think because I was friendly with Paul, I got to know Lorne a little bit and I ended up playing in the house band for about a year and a half in ’79-’80, and then I just, Lorne is actually a neighbor of mine. He lives right around the corner from me in New York. I don’t know. This opportunity came up to do this TV show called Night Music and a guy named David Soltz (sp) put it together, and he, we approached Lorne Michaels to be the to produce the show for us and he agreed and I had known him from early days through Paul and from Saturday Night Live, so it was, that’s how that all happened.
Carol: Then how did, did you get to pick the artist? Who was routing through?
David: No, no. We picked people. I mean, it was, I mean, we tried to put together interesting combinations of people that we thought would be not only interesting for the audience but creatively stimulating for the musicians, as well, like putting Leonard Cohen and Sonny Rollins together on the show and have them play together, as well as individually. I think the idea was that we would put musicians together and demonstrate how the commonality of people, how they would find that bridge that would connect their music to the other person, and I think that’s a demonstration of what most musicians do and I think it was. I mean, I found it very entertaining but coming from musicians’ standpoint.
It seemed to strike a responsive chord with a lot of people. I mean, I can’t tell you how many musicians have come to me over the years, tell them how important that show was to them, and that makes me feel great because I felt like we were really doing something that exposed people to a lot of wider variety of music than maybe they would have normally been exposed to.
Carol: Anybody that ran through there that you made a connection with musically later?
David: Well a guy named Tim Berne, who was a saxophone player and we shared a love and respect for a musician named Julius Hemphill and we ended up recording together and playing some things together. I mean, everybody that was on the show was either someone I knew or someone I had known earlier through whatever situation. I think we had the Red Hot Chili Peppers on. I think it was their first TV appearance. We had The Pixies on. We had Sun Ra, we had Al Green, we had Robert Cray, we had Randy Newman, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, so many people.
Carol: Did you have any other connection with Miles?
David: Well I knew Miles through Gil Evans. I had met Miles in the early ’70s when I was playing with Gil. I played with Miles several times over the years, and he was, I mean, what can you say about Miles Davis? He was an extraordinary musician. Master of space.
Carol: You also have done some fun stuff on the Letterman Show.
David: Yeah, well Letterman’s been great. I got to, I got an opportunity to be on the Letterman Show through my friendship with Paul Shaffer and in the early incarnation of the show when it was on NBC, I knew all the guys in the band, Hiram Bullock was my ex guitar player, and Steve Jordan I knew because I played with him in New York, and Will Lee I’d known from we worked with the Brecker Brothers together, so I knew all the guys in the band.
I started out just coming in occasionally and sitting in with the band and then Letterman was very gracious to me and allowed me to come on as a guest a few times and I became a regular on the show. Then when they went to CBS, I did it for a while but then I got really busy on the road and didn’t have the opportunity to go on as much. To be able to summon up these songs just off the top of their head and play them pretty much on the fly like that as a band is pretty amazing, and make it look so easy.
(Carol: David Sanborn’s most recent album is called Time and the River, and it puts the saxophonist back in the company of his longtime friend and collaborator, Marcus Miller, the bassist. In 2014, he collaborated with Bobby Hutchison, Joe DeFrancesco, and Billy Hart on a CD called Enjoy the View. When we wrapped this conversation, it was briefly about his first album that he did with Joey DeFrancesco and going back to his sound from his early career on that album, Only Everything.)
Carol: With Ray and the fact that Hank Crawford and David Newman were people that you listened to and admired, I’m hearing a lot of that in your music the last couple of albums.
David: Well, I mean, I’m certainly going in that direction. I really haven’t, my playing hasn’t really changed in any significant way over the years from when I started. I mean, certainly, the foundation of my playing has remained the same. I mean, hopefully, it’s gotten a little more sophisticated, a little, I’ve broaden my power a little bit, but the basic character of my playing has always been the same even no matter what context I’ve been in. I think that for me to put myself in the context that I really came from, which is this kind of gospel, jazz, rhythm and blues setting, that is the Ray Charles kind of vibe was important to me to reconnect to aspects of my playing that seemed to me to fundamental.
Carol: It sounds great and it suits you well.
David: Thank you.
Carol: Tell me about putting together Only Everything.
David: Well I knew I wanted to make an album with Joey DeFrancesco and I also knew that I wanted to follow up the last record, Here and Gone, with a something that was in the same spirit as that record, so bringing forward that Ray Charles, that period of music vibe, Hank Crawford, Fathead Newman thing, but do it in the context of having B3 Organ being a real foundation of the sound. Because the other part of my early playing experience was with organ groups in St. Louis. It’s a way for me to touch home.
(Carol: That’s a little bit from saxophonist David Sanborn. Thanks for listening to Musicians on Mic. If you want to hear or learn more about the show, you can find it on carolhandleypresents.com.)