'Yakety Sax' Saxophonist Boots Randolph, 80

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Boots Randolph, 80, a versatile saxophonist best remembered for his 1963 recording of "Yakety Sax," whose zany melody spiced the girl-chasing comedy sketches of TV star Benny Hill, died July 3 at Skyline Medical Center in Nashville. He had a cerebral hemorrhage.

Starting in the late 1950s, Mr. Randolph's saxophone abilities brought him to prominence as one of Nashville's elite backup, or session, players known as the A-Team. He became a vital part of the "Nashville sound" that blended country and pop influences.

He was featured on such bubblegum hits as singer Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and "I'm Sorry"; Elvis Presley's first post-Army release, "Elvis Is Back!" (1960), featuring the bluesy "Reconsider Baby"; and singer Roy Orbison's "Mean Woman Blues" and "Oh, Pretty Woman."

Mr. Randolph's association with such stars launched his prolific solo career in country-influenced rock, jazz and gospel. For years, he maintained a schedule of more than 200 annual recordings and concert dates and made dozens of solo albums that skipped across genres.

He remained a valuable supporting player to everyone from country pop star Chet Atkins to Dixieland trumpeter Al Hirt ("Java") to the rock band REO Speedwagon ("Little Queenie").

Homer Louis Randolph III was born June 3, 1927, in Paducah, Ky., and finished high school in Evansville, Ind. He said a brother gave him the nickname "Boots" to distinguish him from their father, also named Homer, but he could never explain why.

Mr. Randolph grew up in a musical family. He and his siblings used to win Depression-era talent shows at which food was the prize.

"There were times when we didn't have much to eat, but we always had music," he said in 2002. "It was standard for us to come home from one of those [music] contests with the car loaded down with cans of corn and peas, boxes of macaroni, bacon, bread and so forth."

Toward the end of World War II, he played sax, trombone and vibraphone in an Army band. Afterward, he played with a Decatur, Ill.-based group called Dink Welch's Kopy Kats, and after a brief time in a Louisville rock outfit, he returned to start his own group in Decatur.

With guitarist James "Spider" Rich, Mr. Randolph had written a version of what became "Yakety Sax," which had been inspired by the Coasters' hit "Yakety Yak."

The Rich-Randolph composition caught the attention of Jethro Burns, of the popular country-comedy act Homer & Jethro. Burns successfully appealed to his brother-in-law, Chet Atkins, then a rising RCA Records executive, to sign the saxophonist in 1958.

However, Mr. Randolph's first few RCA recordings, including one of "Yakety Sax," were not mass-market breakthroughs. (Atkins's own reworking of the song as "Yakety Axe" brought him a country hit in 1965.) While RCA did not see Mr. Randolph as a solo artist, executives recognized his adaptability and made him a session musician. He appeared on RCA's 1960 jazz album "The Nashville All-Stars -- After the Riot at Newport" with Atkins, guitarist Hank Garland and pianist Floyd Cramer.

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