Thursday, May 4, 2017

RIP, Saxa of The Beat

The Beat were (left to right) Ranking Roger, David Steele, Saxa,
Andy Cox (behind Saxa), Dave Wakeling, and Everett Morton.
From the opening notes of The Beat's 1979 debut single for 2 Tone (their incredible cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "Tears of a Clown") through to the closing, lingering sounds of "Ackee 1-2-3" (from the last track on their third and final studio album, Special Beat Service, released in 1982), Saxa's exuberant, lush, and free-flowing tenor saxophone horn lines were integral to the band's music (providing a relaxed, improvisational contrast to the tightly wound, bullet train of a rhythm section)--giving The Beat a distinct and instantly recognizable trademark sound that managed to bridge the opposing energies of dubby reggae and punk-fired late '70s British ska.

Born Lionel Augustus Martin in Jamaica on January 5, 1930, Saxa performed with fellow JA ska superstars like Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker, and Laurel Aitken (and later backed Elvis and The Beatles). Already 50 by the time he was recruited to join The Beat (having emigrated to England 25 years earlier), Saxa not only contributed his prodigious musical talents to the band, but lent the upstart ska revivalists immediate legitimacy through his participation in the first wave of ska with the aforementioned '60s ska originators.

In Daniel Rachel's brilliant "Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge" (the best history of 2 Tone that you'll ever read), Ranking Roger recalled: "Days before we went into the studio [to record "Tears of a Clown"] we found Saxa. He was this old, loud Jamaican man that just got drunk all the time and was always aggressive and cussing and swearing. There must have been a good thirty-five years' difference between us but as soon as he blew that saxophone, baby, you'd shut up."

Dave Wakeling added: "Everett [Morton] used to take us to the Crompton in Handsworth where Saxa played. He was the most mesmerizing saxophone player we'd ever heard. He played a couple of gigs with us and then said, 'I've been waiting all my life for you boys.'"

After three phenomenal albums, The Beat split into General Public and Fine Young Cannibals, but Saxa continued working with both factions, appearing on studio recordings for both acts (and later recording and touring with the The International Beat and Special Beat).

Saxa passed away on May 3, 2017 at age 87.

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The Beat's Special Beat Service was released in 1982 when I was 16 and was on heavy rotation throughout my high school and college years (it still remains an all-time favorite, along with all of the other original Beat albums). Saxa's riffs on all of these tunes are permanently engrained in my mind and I'm forever grateful for his extraordinary music and life.

I offer my deepest condolences to his family, friends, colleagues, and fans.

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Anonymous said...

Really nice tribute and information !

The first two lp's i ever bought were This are two tone compilation and The Beat I just can't stop it when i was six.

Still playing them 30 something years later.

RIP Saxa

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks for your comments!

You had incredible taste as a kid!

I, too, listen to The Beat with great frequency all these years later...