Boots Randolph, 80; versatile musician recorded ‘Yakety Sax’

Washington Post

Boots Randolph, 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, has died. He was 80.

Randolph died Tuesday at Skyline Medical Center in Nashville after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage June 25.

Starting in the late 1950s, 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 pop-chart hits as 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 Roy Orbison’s “Mean Woman Blues” and “Oh, Pretty Woman.”

Randolph’s association with such singers launched his prolific solo career in country-influenced rock, jazz and gospel.

For years, he maintained a schedule of more than 200 annual concert dates and recordings. He recorded dozens of solo albums that skipped across genres.

He remained a valuable supporting player to such musicians as country pop star Chet Atkins, Dixieland trumpeter Al Hirt (“Java”) and the rock band REO Speedwagon (“Little Queenie”).

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

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, Ky., rock outfit, he returned to start his own group in Decatur.

With guitarist James “Spider” Rich, Randolph wrote a version of what became “Yakety Sax,” inspired by the Coasters hit “Yakety Yak.”

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

However, Randolph’s first few RCA recordings, including one of “Yakety Sax,” were not mass-market breakthroughs.

Although RCA did not see 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.

His work on Presley’s album that year brought him far greater prominence, and he became a reliable fixture in the rock ‘n’ roll star’s recording sessions.

“They knew I was versatile with the different sounds, and I got to be the guy they would hire to put on the sessions. But sometimes I’d record only one song all night,” Randolph once said.

In 1961, he left RCA to sign with Monument Records, a much smaller company, in hopes of bettering his solo career. The company issued a new release of “Yakety Sax,” from the 1963 album of the same name, that stayed on the pop charts for a year. Hill, the slapstick British comedian, later took it as his theme song, much to Randolph’s delight.

Randolph had a series of popular singles, including “Hey, Sax Man,” “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “With Love.”

He became part of a touring group called the Festival of Music that featured Atkins, Cramer, trumpeter Danny Davis, singer-guitarist Roy Clark, fiddler Johnny Gimble and harmonica player Charlie McCoy.

Randolph became a personality on television variety shows hosted by Johnny Carson, Ed Sullivan and Jackie Gleason, as well as country-oriented programs such as “Hee Haw” and “The Jimmy Dean Show.”

In 1977, he opened Boots Randolph’s, a 275-seat nightclub in Nashville’s historic Printer’s Alley. The club became his home base for 17 years. He ended his career playing with trumpeter Davis at the Stardust Theater, across from the Opryland Hotel.

“ ‘Yakety Sax’ will be my trademark,” Randolph told the Associated Press in 1990. “I’ll hang my hat on it. It’s kept me alive. Every sax player in the world has tried to play it. Some are good, some are awful.”

Randolph is survived by his wife of 59 years, Dee Baker Randolph of Whites Creek, Tenn.; two children, Randy Randolph and Linda O’Neal, both of Nashville; a sister; a brother; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.