The Yakety Sax Man
Every major recording center had at least one resident saxophone wailer during the 1950s and early ‘60s whose socking solos ignited countless rock and roll hits. Sam “The Man” Taylor was the king of New York’s tenor sax sessioneers before giving ground to King Curtis. Lee Allen ruled the roost in New Orleans, while Plas Johnson was L.A.’s first-call horn ace.
One extraordinarily inventive saxist had the Nashville studio scene sewn up tight. Whenever Brenda Lee, Roy Orbison, or Elvis booked a Music Row record date, Homer Louis Randolph invariably got the call if a horn was required. Few knew him by his given name; everyone called him Boots. His diamond-cut yakety sax attack was as distinctive as that of any of those other now-legendary horn greats.
“I established myself in Nashville about like King Curtis had up in New York,” said Boots. “We were sort of the warhorses of those tenor solo guys. It was part of that sound that everybody wanted, because the saxophone player was pretty dominant. That was before guitars just really took over.”
When Presley came back home from the Army and got down to business on his Elvis is Back! LP for RCA Victor in the spring of 1960, a new face graced his studio band at the second date. “Chet Atkins called me and said, ‘I’ve got a real special session set up here. It’s with Elvis, and I want you to come down and be here, and we may be able to get you on some of the sides,’” remembered Boots, whose rip-roaring two-chorus ride on a lowdown revival of Lowell Fulson’s blues “Reconsider Baby” capped off a prodigious two days of recording action for the King.
“That came late one night. We were doing some session stuff there,” he said. “I don’t remember who brought it up. They said, ‘Well, get one of those old blues things goin’, just an old Mississippi kind of blues. And let loose, get in there and play a little solo on it.’ So that’s basically what happened. I think we made maybe a couple of takes on it, and he liked it so well, he said, ‘I want to keep that!’”
Boots’ raucous sax was subsequently prominent on Presley’s “I Feel So Bad,” “Return To Sender,” “Witchcraft,” “What’d I Say,” and the theme to the 1962 film Girls! Girls! Girls!. “‘Witchcraft’ was one of the things I think I cut on him pretty good,” he said. “After seeing what he was and meeting him and getting to know him somewhat--not personally, but just in the crowd, you might say--I learned that he was a very honest person. He was a very dedicated person. He was a very naive and a very respectful young man. I said, ‘Well, gee--this guy, he deserves to go somewhere, because he’s got all the good points about him, and he’s a good enough singer.’ And after years of listening to what he did–I go back now and listen to those early cuts–I realize that he had something there that was beyond, almost like it was a spiritual kind of thing that happened with him in recording and everything. And he was dedicated to it.”
Randolph accompanied the rock icon at a March 25, 1961 benefit concert in Hawaii that the saxman always cited as a career highlight. “I had never seen anything like that,” he said. “I had been playing for the public for many, many years, and I’d played to fairly good-sized crowds--maybe a couple thousand, three or four thousand. But they had like 10,000 screaming kids out there, going out of their minds. And that’s really something. That’s almost scary, because I had never associated the music business with that sort of thing.”
Born June 3, 1927 in Paducah, Ky., young Homer grew up in a rural setting. “Cadiz, Ky. wasn’t a metropolis for music,” said Randolph, who picked up his nickname early. “When we got up to about 15-16 years old, my brother Bob, just older than I, played the trumpet. And he had sort of a band, and he’d been going to college. Well, we saw that we might be able to get into music and make some money out of it. He said, ‘Well, you need a professional name.’ My father’s name was Homer, and I’m a Homer, but not a Junior. Our middle names were different. But anyway, he said, ‘Let’s pick out something kind of cute.’ There was a guy by the name of Boots Mussulli, who was a great alto saxophone player. He played with Stan Kenton. And he said, ‘Well, what about Boots? We’ve already been calling you Boo-Boo or something.’ I said, ‘Well, that sounds good to me.’”
The Randolphs relocated to Evansville, Ind. during World War II. Trombone had been Boots’s first main axe, but when his dad brought a saxophone home he swiftly changed allegiance. “Louis Jordan was one of my favorites,” he said. “He was a great saxophone player, plus he was good at what he did. And the stuff he did back in those days was really clean. Earl Bostic was another giant back in there.
“You hear a little bit of jazz on everything I play,” he said. “When I first started playing, my heroes were Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster and Don Byas and Lester Young, and even later on Stan Getz and people like that that were such great players. And I thought, ‘Well, I’m gonna put a little bit of this, all of their type into my playing, and when it comes out, I don’t know what the hell it’s gonna sound like, but hopefully it’ll be Boots Randolph!’”
Settling with his own family in Decatur, Ill. during the early ‘50s, Randolph honed his crowd-pleasing antics on both sax and trombone at the spacious Decatur Lounge, where my mother often dug his potent wails. One of his specialties was the houserocking anthem “Red Light.” “I had a lantern I hung on my arm, and got around there. ‘Red Light,’ it was a flashing red light,” he said. “I would walk behind the bar–it was a big showbar–and I would start on one side, and walk all the way around the bar, and I’d grab a drink about every four or five people and down a sip out of their drink, or they’d have one waitin’ for me. Well, hell, it was a wonder I haven’t become an alcoholic!”
Back in Evansville, Boots was headlining the Blue Bar when Atkins pal James “Spider” Rich solicited his musical expertise. “Spider Rich, he was a guitar player and songwriter from Henderson, Ky.,” said Randolph. “I went over to do some demos with him, and he brought it to Nashville and let Chet hear it. And when Chet heard it, he said, ‘I like this guy’s playing! Bring him down and let me meet him.’ So I took a trip to Nashville with Spider and met Chet, and we kind of kept working around a little bit. And he says, ‘Well, if you guys will come up with some original tunes…’ It was like anything goes back in those days, 1958. The doors were wide open.”
What they came back with was the clever rocker “I’m Getting Your Message Baby,” showcasing Boots’ deep, resonant vocal as well as his sax, and the novelty instrumental romp “Difficult.” His debut RCA single was released as by Randy Randolph because jazzman Shorty Rogers had already claimed the alias of Boots (Brown) at the label.
“When I came to Nashville, they hadn’t had a saxophone player down here. I was fortunate enough that I got involved in the early part of it in 1958,” Randolph said. “Chet Atkins said, ‘I want to use you on some sessions,’ and first thing you know, Owen Bradley had called over and said, ‘I want to use him too!’” Decca A&R man Bradley utilized Boots on a Brenda Lee date that October that produced her Yuletide perennial “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.”
“That was one of my marks in the world, I guess you might say. I had no melody or nothing there to go by. That was right off the top of my head. I created that solo myself,” said Randolph. “I don’t know if we recorded it very many times. It might not have been over a couple of takes.” That wasn’t the only gem laid down that day. “One of my best solos I ever played was on one of her songs--the old standard ‘Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home,’” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, my solo on there was pretty darned good!” Boots also contributed dazzling solos to Brenda’s “Let’s Jump the Broomstick,” “Sweet Nothin’s,” “That’s All You Gotta Do,” “Dum Dum,” and a wild 1960 remake of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya.” “Brenda was a little pro,” he said. “She was way ahead of her time. At 12-13 years old, she just reared back and sang like the dickens.”
Elvis and Brenda weren’t the only ones to benefit from Boots’ glistening horn excursions. Clyde McPhatter, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Piano Red (as Dr. Feelgood), Johnny Tillotson, and Conway Twitty booked him to wail on their sessions. Roy Orbison was his labelmate at Fred Foster’s Monument Records, Randolph blowing up a storm on Orbison’s “With The Bug” and “Today’s Teardrops.” “He was a neighbor of mine, up in Hendersonville. And I played on some of Roy’s first recordings, even with RCA, the first time I recorded with him,” said Boots. “Later on, when Fred picked him up, he was hiring me to come in. Everybody was kind of like, ‘Well, I’d better get Boots. He’s a good luck charm for these people!’”
However, Randolph’s solo career at RCA was slow to ignite. His second date as a leader in September of ‘58 included his future calling card, “Yakety Sax,” though it wasn’t a hit its first time out. Boots found its inspiration at a Bradley-produced Decca session. “It was just a pattern that I played on this record,” he said. “I got home, and I got to thinking about that thing. I thought, ‘I don’t know where that came from or how I played it or why, but I’m gonna work on that a little bit.’ And I sat down and got me a pen and pencil and started writing some notes down and formulated it. And I called Spider up, and I said, ‘Spider, let’s you and I get together and let’s see if we can get this thing down where it makes any sense, and we’ll take it down and let Chet hear it.’ So he said, ‘Oh, great!’
“So we did it and took it down there, and he said, ‘I love it!’” he said. “Chet said, ‘I want to help you guys get it. Let’s go ahead and record it.’ So we recorded it, and everybody that heard it was just ecstatic about it. But RCA didn’t see fit to get behind me and push me, because they wanted to push country out of Nashville, and I don’t think they figured that saxophone was country.” Randolph was still being marketed as both a singer and an instrumentalist. The rocking “Percolator,” “Greenback Dollar,” a scorching reprise of his old Decatur Lounge crowd pleaser “Red Light,” and the John D. Loudermilk-penned “Big Daddy” (his biggest RCA seller, though it didn’t chart) made a convincing case for his vocal skills, yet Yakety Sax, his 1960 RCAVictor album, was strictly instrumental. He was now billed as Boots Randolph, the “Randy” moniker happily gone forever.
“I had the Anita Kerr Singers on it. I did a lot of old standards: ‘Teach Me Tonight,’ ‘After You’ve Gone.’ That was Hank Garland that played that guitar solo on that,” said Boots. “I thought ‘The Battle Of New Orleans’ was a cute version, and ‘The Happy Whistler.’ I love Don Robertson’s stuff. He was one of my favorite writers.” There was also the honking R&B swinger “Little Big Horn” and a whirlwind treatment of the old standard “Sleep.” “That version of ‘Sleep’ was pretty much off of a Bostic type of a thing,” he noted.
Nashville’s A-Team often repaired to the Carousel Club at day’s end to blow some jazz. They were so good that Boots, Garland and fellow master guitarist Atkins, pianist Floyd Cramer, bassist Bob Moore, drummer Buddy Harman, teenaged vibist Gary Burton, and violinist/pianist Brenton Banks were invited to play the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival. Alas, they never got to perform. “We were scheduled to play on the Fourth of July at the Newport Festival,” Randolph said. “Well, they had a big riot on the third of July, and they canceled it.” RCA captured the troupe’s hip jamming for posterity anyway. “We went out on a porch, out on the old house we were staying in, and recorded the next day,” said Boots. After the Riot at Newport was released under the aggregate handle of the Nashville All-Stars, confirming their uncommon versatility.
1961 was auspicious in two ways for Randolph–he permanently moved to Nashville and switched to Monument, debuting with “Fancy Dan.” Meanwhile, at Baltimore’s WJZ-TV, Gerry Wheeler, known to his wee fans as Lorenzo the Clown, had chosen “Yakety Sax” as his theme.
“He didn’t talk. Never said a word. He did all kinds of little hand language,” said Boots.
“He was working on the station that Buddy Deane, who was a big disc jockey up there at the time (was). Buddy had this bunch of kids that would come to the dance thing in the afternoon. Well, this clown show was getting bigtime on that station that he was on, and the little kids would dance this ‘Lorenzo Stomp’ dance. Well, they got to dancing, and they would play my record and dance to it on the Buddy Deane Show. Buddy called Fred Foster at Monument Records and said, ‘Fred, you need to get in there in the studio and re-record this thing right away, ‘cause RCA ain’t gonna see fit to go out and redistribute this thing, and you got you a smash hit if you do!’ So we ran in there and recorded it pretty quick, and got it up there.”
In its Monument reincarnation, “Yakety Sax” sailed to #35 pop in early ‘63 and made Boots a star. He had three more chart singles: “Hey, Mr. Sax Man,” where he bounces licks off off a saucy girl group, did okay in the spring of ‘64, while his breathy treatments of “The Shadow Of Your Smile” and “Temptation” nicked the hit parade in late ‘66/early ‘67. On the LP charts, he was a major force, his 13 hit albums commencing with Boots Randolph’s Yakety Sax! (that 1963 set’s infectious “Cacklin’ Sax” should have been his next Monument 45 but wasn’t).
Yakety Sax! and 1967's Boots with Strings both went gold, underscoring the mutually beneficial relationship enjoyed by Boots and Foster. “If it hadn’t been for him, I tell everybody, I’d still be up in Kentucky pickin’ cotton,” chuckled Randolph. Among his other standout LPs for the logo: 1964's Hip Boots! (spotlighting his jazzier inclinations) and the next year’s Plays 12 Monstrous Sax Hits! (where he torched the rocking instrumental classics “You Can’t Sit Down,” “Night Train,” “Tequila,” “Tuff,” “Soft,” and “Walkin’ With Mr. Lee”) and Plays More Yakety Sax!, split right down the middle between rockers and ballads.
Another important benefactor was country crooner Jimmy Dean, who featured the comedically inclined saxman on his mid-‘60s network TV show. “Jimmy, he was my angel,” he said. “He was doing a session down there and invited to have me on the session. And he says, ‘I want to do a song that you probably won’t know, but I want you to play a little solo on it.’ And it was ‘I Saw Your Face In The Moon.’ It has the same progression as ‘Bill Bailey.’ And for some reason, I jumped in there and played about the same type of a chorus as I did on Brenda Lee’s ‘Bill Bailey.’ Well, he just dropped down on the floor, and he jumped up and down, and he went into antics after I got through with that solo. And he ran over to me and kissed me, and he said, ‘I ain’t never heard nothing like that before in my life!’ And it was the first take. We hadn’t even had a chance to run through it. We just started playing it, and wow!
“He said, ‘I’m having you on my show as often as you’ll come up and do it.’ And I did it, I guess maybe a dozen times. And every time I’d go up there, he’d say, ‘I want you to have a new album, or a new tune out, and we’ll push the hell out of it!’” Boots also mimed “Yakety Sax” and “Cacklin’ Sax” in a nightclub scene in the ‘66 film That Tennessee Beat, his co-stars including the Statler Brothers and Minnie Pearl.
Boots became a Nashville fixture, guesting on Hee Haw more than once over the years. He starred nightly at the Carousel in Printer’s Alley and ended up buying the place in 1977, keeping it open for another 17 years with himself the prime attraction. In the ‘80s, a popular British television comedy program revived “Yakety Sax” for a new generation. “The biggest thrill was Benny Hill making it the theme on his show,” Boots said. “It brought it back to prominence.”
At the 2006 Ponderosa Stomp in Memphis, Randolph played an unusual blues set as part of an all-star Nashville group that included fiddler Buddy Spicher and vocalist Billy Swan. Whenever he stepped out to solo, his exhilarating tenor saxophone technique remained singular, elevating the energy level of the entire combo.
“It’s like Ray Charles,” he said. “Immediately you know who Ray Charles is when you hear him sing. Well, Boots Randolph was pretty much in that bag. When I played a few notes, they knew it was Boots Randolph.”
Although he died July 3, 2007 at age 80 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, it’s safe to say they still do and likely always will.