No rock'n'roll band not named after an E Street has provided a more consistent saxophone sanctuary than the Rolling Stones.
In 1969, after brief dalliances with Victorian-era music hall and "summer of love" psychedelia, Mick Jagger brought the rock-roots instrument squarely into the fold during the Let It Bleed sessions. Over their career, the band has had 16 sax solos (10 recorded during their fertile 1969-73 “sax corridor”) and cleared way for supporting-role sax parts in at least 34 more songs.
The Stones sax solos in this list are rewarded not by how good the song is, but how well the sax solo justifies its moment. "Casino Boogie," for example, is not a better song than "Brown Sugar," but its sax solo does a better job adding an expanded sonic layer – and so ranks higher.
Incidentally if you are like Courtney Love and feel rock'n'roll has no place for saxophone have a listen to "Rocket 88." The 1951 song by Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm is often considered the first rock song. The ode to a Oldsmobile was written by a sax player, sung by a sax player, and features a sax solo.
Rock sort of started with sax, guys.
Here are the Rolling Stones best-to-worst saxophone solos:
1. WAITING ON A FRIEND (1981)
You know you are the “greatest rock’n’roll band in the world" when Sonny Rollins, of Saxophone Colossus jazz fame, answers your calls. In 1973, the Rolling Stones brought in Rollins for a few solos — though, somehow, none were released until their Tattoo You album eight years later. The best is “Waiting on a Friend,” featuring two separate solos — lightly echoed — with a nightclub, tongue-on-reed, melancholy tone that melds perfectly into the dreamy mix of Keith Richards’ chorused guitars, Mick Jagger’s falsetto and a symphony of percussion by Michael Carabello (who was the Santana member with the best hair at Woodstock.)
2. CASINO BOOGIE (1972)
The late Bobby Keys will always be the Stones definitive sax player, with a big sound that's less Village Vanguard than sweaty roadhouse. This is evident all over Exile on Main Street, where he plays on half the 18 songs. This overlooked side-one track features a 24-second solo that’s chiefly a syncopated play of a single note (reminiscent of Neil Young’s one-note solos on “Cinnamon Girl” and “Down By the River” two years before). It all works wonders as Charlie Watts drags the beat and Mick Jagger uses William S Burroughs “cut-up” lyric style (eg “million dollar sad,” “kissing c*nt in Cannes”) two years before David Bowie copped it.
3. HOW CAN I STOP (1997)
Bridges to Babylon ended with not one, but two broody Keith Richards songs on an album that felt like it’d be the Stones’ last. This ballad meanders for five minutes before jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter (of Bitches Brew fame) steps in with his soprano. Shorter solos twice here. Most arresting is the closer, where Charlie crashes the ride in a steady fury as the sax builds into a transporting drone unlike any other moment in the Stones catalog.
Apparently the track was done live by the whole band and left producer Don Was speechless. Even with Mick absent, it would have been an incredible final Rolling Stones moment.
4. RIP THIS JOINT (1972)
The fastest Rolling Stones song is only 2:23 long, but packs in two sax solos. (Respect.) Each makes fired-up, throaty runs (for 53 seconds in all) as Charlie rollicks the snare and tinkling pianos add to the roadhouse vibe.
5. NEIGHBOURS (1981)
The song may be a borderline throw-away, but it’s pure fun. And it’s Sonny Rollins on sax again, who gives his best Bobby Keys impression to start his first solo (31 seconds), before unleashing a Keys-breaking falling cascade of notes and screeching into high notes. Follow him at the end, where he lets loose a belching BLAPPPTTT after Mick’s “neighbours!” call-out.
6. SLAVE (1981)
Sonny again, this time in a song that’s basically a sax solo jam that is a tiny miracle after finding its way — fresh and with purpose – onto Tattoo You after an eight-year hibernation. In the studio album version, Sonny breaks early into a 42-second tasty solo that runs through the following “don’t want to be your slave!” chorus. He keeps noodling in the background afterward, before erupting into high notes that lead into the closing guitar solo. It’s hard to imagine “Slave” without the sax.
7. CAN’T YOU HEAR ME KNOCKING (1971)
This sprawling, two-part song begins with a Keith riff for a couple minutes, then suddenly slides into a Santana instrumental for the final five. As with “Slave,” sax is key for staying upright. Bobby Keys, who solos two minutes in all, leads-in his solo with a hummingbird flutter, far more effective than his clumsy start to his other 1971 solo, “Brown Sugar.”
8. SWEET VIRGINIA (1972)
The “got to scrape the shit right off your shoes” chorus kept the countrified sing-along off the radio. Yet no song on Exile on Main Street offers an equal feel-the-room atmosphere of the stoned early ‘70s British/American refugees singing along in a French basement. Bobby Keys gets a hearty 35-second solo, with great tone, to break up all the choruses that run this song out after back-to-back opening verses. But it’s Mick Jagger’s sparse opening run on the harmonica and Mick Taylor’s acoustic doodles that steals the solo show.
9. EMOTIONAL RESCUE (1980)
This disco follow-up to “Miss You” is more of a Bobby Keys sax duet with Mick’s hilarious lead vocals than a solo outright. (Note: Mick’s delivery of “I will be your knight in shining armour” has no woodwind translation.)
The sax is vital to flesh out the barebone structure (Keith plays only a light touch of muted percussive guitar amidst the high hat, bass drum and electronic pianos). Keys solo-duets nearly two-and-a-half minutes here, highlighted by the tonguey reed work at the end, which is unlike any other of Keys’ work with the band.
10. COMING DOWN AGAIN (1973)
After Bobby Keys’ huge role in 1972’s Exile on Main Street, he only gets one solo in the Goat’s Head Soup, coming late in Keith’s great chipped ballad that runs nearly six minutes.
Surprisingly, Keys only gets 21 seconds for his unusual solo. He plays two sax parts that bubble up, overlap, answer each other. It’s effective, though feels like he could have used another take or two amidst all the post–Exile on Main Street haze of the Jamaica recording session. (Or higher treatment in the muddy mix.)
11. LIVE WITH ME (1969)
The first Rolling Stones sax solo is also the first song featuring Mick Taylor on guitar. Interestingly, the new “lead” guitarist plays it conservative with muted rhythm guitars, raunchily balancing Keith’s chugging guitar while Charlie double-times the whole way through. Listen to how Bobby Keys cheats into his solo with a held-out note before letting go a (slightly long) 46-second solo.
12. GOING TO A GO-GO (1982)
Filling in for an out-of-commission Bobby Keys on the 1981-82 tour, Ernie Watts — a moustached Virginian — begins with one-note work for a couple bars then breaks into a dynamic chat with the rhythm section, built off Charlie’s toms. The version of the (underrated) Still Life live LP is better than the live version shown in the video.
13. MISS YOU (1978)
Mel Collins, a Brit, is a disciple of the Saturday Night Live school where saxes are meant to blare their way to commercial. He shows that in his brief 18-second solo shared with some peppered-in guitar leads. This sort of sax feels well suited for a disco single. But it’s Sugar Blue’s high-note harmonica leads that linger most after a listen.
14. EVERYTHING’S TURNING TO GOLD (1978)
An outtake from the Some Girls album, this fun song — with Mel Collins getting short space again, more for a sax riff than solo – is quality enough to have made any other studio album after 1978, but is found only on the B-side of "Shattered."
15. I THINK I’M GOING MAD (1983)
This is an unfinished song that appeared as the B-side to the 1983 single “She Was Hot.” With a little more care, it could have been excellent. The sax — recorded in 1980 — is integral to the song, but its soft jazz opening is the most jarringly off moment in Stones’ sax history. Things pep up as the snare starts to pop and the song builds in a typical Stones swell. Could’ve been a contender.
16. BROWN SUGAR (1971)
Where to begin? A song about a raping slaver, possibly doubling as a nod to crude heroin, is not the topic you see from #1 songs very often. It’s basically a Mick Jagger song, and also one of the Stones’ most obedient songs. Drums switch the toms in the perfect moment, acoustics come in for careful filling, bar-chord guitars play their parts in separate corners like separated school kids.
Originally Mick Taylor, apparently still trying to figure out his role in the band when recording this in 1969, recorded a guitar solo, but eventually Mick Jagger asked Bobby Keys to offer his own. Keys’ work, though, feels thin, rushed and sort of tacked onto an overwhelmingly guitar-centric song. And shockingly Keys misses the start, coming in a couple beats late.
“Brown Sugar" may be their most famous sax solo. But, sorry, it’s also their worst.