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From Pink Floyd to Lady Gaga: 12 Awesome Sax Solos

Clarence Clemmons
Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images

After years of falling out of favor, the saxophone is back and badder than ever thanks to recent hits by Lady Gaga and Dev. THR runs down a brief history of the woodwind instrument’s love affair with pop -- the good, bad and syrupy.

Is it ok to like the saxophone again?

Thanks to the saxual harrasment of the 1980s, when practically every Lite FM staple featured a schmaltzy brass crescendo, mainstream musicians had largely soured on the saxophone… until this year.

Forget the Summer of Sam -- it’s the summer of sax. From Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory,” featuring Bruce Springsteen’s longtime sax man Clarence Clemons, to Dev’s “In the Dark,” which oozes a sexy sax melody for its chorus, to Alexandra Stan’s Euro hit “Mr. Saxobeat,” suddenly low-bellowing reed tones are in vogue.

Of course, the instrument has a long and glorious history, which runs the gamut from old school jazz greats like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman to the more contemporary Kenny G and Mindi Abair, but for the purposes of this list, we’ve narrowed it down to usage in rock and pop. Read on for THR’s rundown of 12 awesome sax solos from the past 40 years. 

Lady Gaga “Edge Of Glory” (2011)

The envelope-pushing pop star recruited the Big Man himself, Clarence Clemons, for the eighties-influenced track from her Born This Way album. According to producer Fernando Garibay, Clemons nailed the solo on the first take. “It was magical, “ he told THR in May. “I had created this musical break where I felt like it needed a moment. Clarence came in and goes, ‘Let me hear it,’ so we played it down one time and sure enough, he found his pocket and just started soloing. It was amazing.” Clemons died on June 18, weeks after performing with Gaga, whom Garibay describes as a “massive Springsteen fan,” on the American Idol season 10 finale.

Dev “In the Dark” (2011)

The latest single from the singer better known as “the girl who delivers the hook on ‘Like a G6’,” Dev coos of “dance-dance-d-dance-dancing in the dark” on her latest sultry single, which features a sax melody in the chorus. Just as addictive as her hit with the Far East Movement and Dev’s own “Bass Down Low,” it stands to only build anticipation for her proper Universal Republic debut, The Night the Sun Came Up (due out in the fall). 

Alexandra Stan “Mr. Saxobeat” (2010)

Hot Bucharest-based singer Alexandra Stan released her epic homage to mysterious sax playing men (we think) in late 2010, but it wasn’t until this summer that the song exploded worldwide. So far this year, it has topped iTunes charts all over Europe and was No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance Airplay chart for over a month earlier this summer. Not only does the song feature a sax riff as its raison d’etre, the track itself is called Mr. Saxobeat.

Mighty Mighty Bosstones "The Impression That I Get" (1997)

The Boston ska band's biggest hit was this horn section-fueled stomper. It also made its way into several movies, including Step Brothers, Chasing Amy and Clueless; the latter featured the Bosstones as the band playing at the school dance. Fun fact: gravelly-voiced frontman Dicky Barrett is the announcer on Jimmy Kimmel Live.   

INXS “What You Need” (1985)

Australian rock act INXS employed so much sax in the 1980s, they may as well have been the instrument’s publicists. The trick INXS used, was to weave it so effortlessly into their songs so that the listener nearly forgot they were even listening to a sax solo. “What You Need” was just one example of INXS’ ability to produce non-annoying sax sounds in pop songs, and it worked out well for them in the mid 1980s, arguably the apex of their success in America.

Glenn Frey “You Belong to the City” (1985)

If there’s one song synonymous with cheesy-yet-epic saxophone of the 1980s, it’s this hit from the Eagles guitarist. While the song gained fame via the television series Miami Vice (the tune appeared on the soundtrack of Vice, which was perched atop American album charts for a staggering 11 weeks in 1985), the promo for the track is all steamy New York City nights, with a random actor playing the hauntingly iconic riff over and over again. Even Don Johnson’s white suit can’t ruin the video to the classic track, which lives on via recurrent airplay to this day (both video and radio).

Wham!/George Michael “Careless Whisper” (1984)

British saxophonist Steve Gregory delivered one of the most iconic melodies to come out of the decade of excess. The ballad about adultery and heartbreak hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1985 but also marked one of the last collaborations by the duo Wham!, which featured George Michael and Andrew Ridgley. The video, shot in Miami in the summer of 1984, is almost as well-known and showcases not only Michael’s acting chops, but his much envied golden feathered hair.

David Bowie "Modern Love" (1983)

One of Bowie's biggest MTV hits, "Modern Love" featured the boogie-woogie stylings of three saxophonists, Stan Harrison and Steve Elson, who drive the song's bridge and penultimate end, and Bowie, who's credited with playing the instrument on the album's liner notes. It was the third single off Let's Dance, the singer's most commercial effort, but it only made it as high as No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100.    

Duran Duran “Rio” (1983)

Inspired by Duran Duran’s travels to several exotic locales as the buzz on the British new wave band was still building, “Rio” was the final single off the album of the same name, which remained on the Billboard 200 chart for a staggering 129 weeks. The tenor sax solo came courtesy of musician Andy Hamilton, who had also appeared on songs by Wham! and Elton John. In the video, he's shown playing the instrument while trying to balance on a makeshift raft (it's actually Duran bassist John Taylor). The Duran boys, meanwhile, got to soak up the sun in an impressive yacht. No surprise there, frontman Simon Le Bon was an avid sailor himself.

Bruce Springsteen “Born to Run” (1975)

After four decades of playing with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, so many Clarence Clemons solos stand out -- “Rosalita,” “Jungleland,” even “Dancing in the Dark” -- but you’d be hard-pressed to find a New Jersey resident who can’t hum the end to “Born to Run,” where the Big Man truly shined. As Springsteen eulogized at Clemons’ Florida funeral: “Every night, in every place, the magic came flying out of C’s suitcase.” His untimely passing means future generations won’t be able to see the magic live in person, but the music lives on.

Pink Floyd “Us and Them” (1973)

Among the most epic numbers on the band's seminal and eternally psychedelic Dark Side of the Moon (and that's saying a lot), "Us and Them" clocks in at seven minutes and 51 seconds -- long enough for there to be two sax solos. Actually, the instrument has a near constant presence in this opus, and synchs up incredibly well when played along to The Wizard of Oz. The scene: Dorothy's introduction to and eventual exit from Munchkinland.     

Lou Reed “Walk on the Wild Side” (1972)

The monotone former frontman of Velvet Underground released this ode to hard living as a single from his second solo album Transformer. In a case of rock star kismet, the sax solo at the end was played by Ronnie Ross, who taught a young David Bowie how to play the instrument. Bowie also happened to be the producer of Reed's album. Curiously, the song's dirty lyrics and risque subject matter were rarely censored as it became -- and remains -- a staple of FM radio.

More awesome sax solos: David Bowie's "Young Americans" (1975), Steely Dan's "Deacon Blues" (1978), Sadé's "Smooth Operator" (1984) and, lest we forget, the eight greatest seconds of recent sax solo history, Eurovision's Epic Sax Guy.