This is my first blog post after a longer-than-expected 13-day absence, and a belated tribute to the late, great Saxa, the Jamaican saxophonist extraordinaire best known for his work with The English Beat, and who died on May 3, 2017 at the age of 87 (the day after my last blog post).
Born Lionel Augustus Martin, Saxa was part of the first wave of Ska, playing sax with Jamaican artists like Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker. At almost 50 years old, Saxa joined The English Beat to record their first single, a kick-ass, 1979 Ska / New Wave cover of “Tears Of A Clown,” the 1970 No. 1 hit on both sides of the Atlantic by Smokey Robinson And The Miracles.
Following the breakup of The English Beat in 1983, Saxa remained connected with the band’s offshoots, playing on efforts by General Public (with Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger) and Fine Young Cannibals (with Andy Cox and David Steele), and formed The International Beat with original English Beat drummer, Everett Morton.
In my November 2009 interview with Dave Wakeling, the voice of The English Beat and General Public, I asked him, with Ska originating in Jamaica, did he have a favorite Jamaican musician, and he didn’t hesitate to name Saxa, who, according to Dave, “taught me so much about music; not about how to play music, but about the art of connection, the spiritual quality of transmitting messages. He helped put it into hard focus for me, so I knew why I was doing this.”
Following Saxa’s passing, there was a great piece online about him written by Bill Pearls on BrooklynVegan.com, who said that Saxa’s “melodic style was a crucial part of The Beat’s sound – maybe the MOST distinctive part.” I agree with that. There are so many Beat songs with his signature saxophone sound that you wouldn’t hear on anything else at the time that featured a sax.
The first English Beat song showcasing Saxa that comes to mind for me is “Mirror In The Bathroom,” the third of five singles released from their brilliant 1980 debut album, I JUST CAN’T STOP IT.
“Mirror In The Bathroom” became the band’s third consecutive Top 10 hit in their U.K. homeland, reaching No. 4 on the U.K. singles chart, and No. 22 on BILLBOARD’s Dance chart, (a special 12” single with “Hands Off…She’s Mine” and “Twist And Crawl”).
As I’ve prolly stated here before, I was very late in getting to know The English Beat, and I think (the memory is a bit fuzzy here) my first introduction to “Mirror In The Bathroom” was as part of a pivotal scene in the excellent 1997 John Cusack film, GROSSE POINTE BLANK.
In that same 2009 interview with Dave Wakeling, I asked him about it, and what it was like to have a filmmaker want to use his music for a film: “It’s thrilling, John Cusack and John Hughes used a lot of [our] tracks over the years.”
Long before it was used in several films, “Mirror In The Bathroom” helped propel I JUST CAN’T STOP IT to a No. 3 peak on the U.K. album chart (and was certified Gold there). It was also ranked No. 3 in the NEW MUSIC EXPRESS (NME) “Singles Of The Year” list, and author Gary Muholland featured it in his fantastic 2002 book, THIS IS UNCOOL: THE 500 GREATEST SINGLES SINCE PUNK AND DISCO.
After Saxa’s passing, Dave Wakeling posted on Facebook, “Thank you for your pure melody, your insights on music, love and life, and for your constant kindness to me. You now deserve to take your place as Top Tenor, First Chair, in St Peters Archestra, just as you had practiced for your whole life.”
I’ve enjoyed the work of so many saxophonists since I started really getting into music in 1979, but Saxa was in a class all by himself. And, as a new 50-year-old myself, for him to join an upstart Ska / New Wave band at almost 50 years old is mighty impressive, much like Saxa himself.
R.I.P. Saxa, and many, many thanks…