Rediscovering the Legendary “Wrecking Crew” Saxophonist

By Paul Freeman [1992 Interview]

We feel fortunate to have had an opportunity to talk music with the amazing Steve Douglas in 1992. An extraordinary talent, not only as a rock musician, but in R&B and jazz, as well, he died of heart failure in 1993.

“Sometimes, when I’m approaching club owners, they don’t know who I am,” saxophonist Steve Douglas says. “I fell like I’m a kid again, starting out cold.”

That’s ironic. While Douglas might not be a household name, his sax solos have been among the most indelible in rock history. The legendary session musician’s credits read like an encyclopedia of popular music. His work can be heard on recordings of Phil Spector, The Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, The Everly Brothers, Jefferson Starship, Bette Midler, Bobby Darin, Dion, Ricky Nelson, Stevie Wonder, Jan & Dean, Aretha Franklin, Cher, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, The Ramones and many other icons.

His latest album, “Beyond Broadway,” was recorded in Douglas’ compact home studio in Petaluma, Ca. “There’s a lot of competition. I’ve actually had people say, ‘There’s too much sax music out there!’ I’ve never heard anyone say there are too many guitar players or too many singers.”

Douglas declares that he is “definitely not a Dave Sanborn clone. I’m basically an old-time rhythm-and-blues saxophone player, putting my music in a more contemporary setting. I know my sound is familiar to people, from all the records I’ve played on. Now’s as good a time as any to take a shot. There are still 100 records on the Top 100. Somebody’s got to be there.”

There’s no good reason for “Beyond Broadway” to be kept off the top of the contemporary jazz charts. Fifty major stations across the country have jumped on the album. But others have balked.

“Some stations say it’s not smooth enough for them. I was surprised that a new-age station would find it too hard and rock-oriented. Then I started listening to these stations and realized that they were too Muzak-y for me. They told me I didn’t sound like Kenny G. I said, ‘Thank God.’”

The album’s sound, which sends the sax searing through gossamer new-age backdrops, demonstrates intelligence, heart, soul and guts. It also displays world music influences, including tantalizing tastes of Spain, Central America, India, Java and Bali.

“I went to Bali three years ago on a honeymoon and fell in love with the gamelan music. They use marimba-like instruments made in pairs, one slightly out of tune with the other. It has a shimmering effect. I went back and sampled these instruments, figuring they would be great for my own music. I tried to use them subtly. I didn’t want the album to be too foreign-sounding to the American ear. Many people don’t even notice that it’s in there.”

All his life, Douglas has been listening attentively to music. While growing up in Los Angeles, he was exposed to many genres. His mother had been a singer with Stan Kenton’s band. He learned to play trumpet, trombone and violin. At 15, captivated by the rhythm-and-blues players he had seen perform, he focused on the saxophone. The self-taught musician found a natural affinity for the instrument.

“There are advantages to teaching yourself. It lets you take more chances. You don’t know what you shouldn’t do.”

Within six months, he was backing such artists as Ritchie Valens, Johnny “Guitar” Watson and The Rivingtons in local concerts. Upon graduating from high school, Douglas joined Duane Eddy and The Rebels for two albums and extensive touring. They were the second white group to play Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater. (Buddy Holly and The Crickets were the first.)

Douglas’ sax provided an edge to Eddy’s twangy hits, including the lead on the classic “Peter Gunn.” Douglas recalls, “Duane didn’t want to record it. He said, ‘What am I going to do? It’s a sax instrumental.’ I said, ‘Well, you just go, dow-dow-dow-dow-dow-dow.’ That’s what we did and he’s gotten a lot of mileage out of it.”

Finding himself in demand as a session player, Douglas taught himself to read music. Phil Spector, a high school chum, summoned him to New York to play on The Crystals’ records. Then Spector decided to return to the West Coast and asked Douglas to assemble a super band of session players.

“I called all the hot guys in town,” Douglas says, “the ones I’d been working with - Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, Hal Blaine. The first record we cut was “He’s a Rebel.” That was a number one hit. After that, everybody wanted this bunch of guys.”

Among the many Spector wall-of-sound hits on which Douglas played were “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “Be My Baby,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feel’” and “River Deep, Mountain High.”

“Phil is a funny guy, eccentric and flamboyant. I know a lot of people over the years have had trouble with him, but he was never abusive to me. He was demanding. He’d have the band continually run the song over. Then he’d start making changes. That could get tough on the musicians. Leon Russell finally quit.

“We’d work for hours on one band track, which was unheard of in those days. I liked having so much time to work out a clever solo. Most of us appreciated the fact that each time out, we knew we were making a hit. Plus there was a lot of camaraderie.”

Brian Wilson coveted those musicians. “Brian was nuts about Spector’s records and wanted that sound. The Beach Boys couldn’t really cut the stuff themselves. On drums, Dennis Wilson certainly wasn’t Hal Blaine. Carl Wilson always played some guitar, but we would augment it with somebody like Barney Kessel. Brian hardly ever played bass.

“There was friction in the beginning. The guys were bummed out about not playing on their own records. But as soon as they heard what Brian was doing and saw the royalty checks coming in, there wasn’t too much squawking.”

Douglas, who played on every Beach Boys album from “Surfin’ U.S.A.” through “Pet Sounds,” as well as several later recordings, was awed by Brian Wilson’s musical ingenuity.

“He would hear the entire song. We would spend a couple of hours getting it out of his head, onto tape. He’d hear unusual voicings. Sometimes the musicians would argue, ‘Brian, that’s not going to work - this chord against that chord.’ He’d say, ‘Just do it.’ Later on, after he’d add strings, things would mesh. It’s a shame he became an acid casualty. He was a sweet, naive guy.”

Douglas worked with many of rock’s casualties, including Elvis. The saxophonist was seen on camera in “Girls! Girls! Girls!” and recorded the double-sided hit “Viva Las Vegas”/”What’d I Say.”

“Elvis knocked my saxophone over on stage. He was horrified and he picked it up. He didn’t offer to buy me a Cadillac, but he did touch my horn... that’s something,” Douglas says with a chuckle.

Though horns became less prevalent in rock when the British Invasion made guitar the king, Douglas kept busy. He worked as a producer and record company executive. After decades of staying in Los Angeles, he went on tour with both Bob Dylan and Ry Cooder in the late ‘70s. A decade ago, he moved to the Bay Area and played sax and flute with Steve Perry, The Tubes, John Fogerty and Sammy Hagar. He performed on numerous movie soundtracks and recorded several successful jazz albums.

Self-taught in expressing himself through keyboards and computers, Douglas, 54, currently is concentrating on his own music. His new band is comprised of master musicians - Blaine, the most recorded drummer in history, bassist Robin Sylvester (Chuck Berry), keyboardist Byron Allred (Steve Miller), guitarist Greg Douglass (Van Morrison) and percussionist Reid Whatley (of Francis Ford Coppola soundtracks).

“I believe in the music I’m making,” Douglas says. “Every time I’ve tried to devote myself to my own stuff in the past, I’ve been seduced away by a lucrative offer. This time I’m going to stick with it as long as I can.”

He says it’s just in the past couple of years that he has developed enough confidence to make that commitment. “From the start, I could play rock ‘n’ roll or R&B riffs. But I never thought I was a skilled musician. It all seemed like a fluke. Now, at last, I feel that my chops have really been finely honed.

“It only occurred to me recently that when Spector called me to play, he could have gotten King Curtis or any saxophonist around. He was a calculating guy. He didn’t pick me because of friendship. I guess I must have had something after all.”