Saxophonist Boots Randolph, best known for his 1963 instrumental hit “Yakety Sax,” died Tuesday (July 3) in Nashville following a brief hospitalization. The 80-year-old musician suffered a subdural hematoma, a collection of blood on the surface of the brain, on Wednesday (June 27).
In addition to his stature as one of Nashville’s most prominent instrumental artists of the ’60s, Randolph’s work as a studio musician helped shape what became known as the Nashville Sound. At the height of his studio work, Randolph often found himself performing on more than 250 sessions each year, including recordings with Brenda Lee, Chet Atkins, Roy Orbison and many others.
Born June 3, 1927, in Paducah, Ky., Homer Louis Randolph III grew up in Cadiz, Ky., and began playing saxophone at age 16. Because he and his father shared the same name, a family member gave him the nickname of “Boots.”
He later performed in the U.S. Army Band and began working as a professional musician after his discharge in 1946. Following stints in local bands in Illinois and Indiana, Randolph moved to Nashville after mandolinist Jethro Burns of Homer & Jethro brought him to the attention of Atkins, who served as head of RCA Records’ country division.
Randolph’s original version of “Yakety Sax” was released on RCA, but he later re-recorded the lively song for Monument Records. The Monument version proved to be the hit. Although it only peaked at No. 35 on the pop music chart, it remains one of the most recognizable instrumental recordings ever made in Nashville. He co-wrote the song with guitarist James “Spider” Rich. Randolph frequently remarked, “That song is what took me out of the hills of Kentucky and put me in the hills of Tennessee!” Atkins took the melody to No. 4 on the country charts in 1965 with a guitar version he renamed “Yakety Axe.”
In addition to the sessions Atkins produced for numerous RCA artists, Randolph also worked closely with producer Owen Bradley at Decca Records. A 1958 recording session with Brenda Lee led to Randolph’s three-decade history of playing on her records. He’s featured on many of the singer’s most famous recordings, including “I’m Sorry” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
Randolph was also the first saxophonist to ever play on any of Elvis Presley’s records. After appearing on Presley’s 1960 recording of “Reconsider Baby,” he eventually contributed to the soundtracks for eight of Presley’s films. During his career, Randolph also recorded with a diverse collection of artists ranging from Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash and Alabama to clarinetist Pete Fountain and trumpeters Al Hirt and Doc Severinsen. His saxophone work is heard on Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” and Randolph even appeared on REO Speedwagon’s 1972 cover version of Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie.”
As a solo performer, Randolph recorded more than 40 albums, including the recently-released collection of standards, A Whole New Ballgame. During the ’60s and ’70s, he spent 15 years touring with Atkins and pianist Floyd Cramer. He later worked in the Million Dollar Band, a group that included Atkins, Cramer, Burns, Danny Davis, Roy Clark, Johnny Gimble and Charlie McCoy.
He was a frequent guest on national television programs, including The Ed Sullivan Show, Kraft Music Hall, The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson and other variety and talk shows hosted by Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and Joey Bishop.
At the time of his death, Randolph had tour dates scheduled through November, including a two-night stand in October at the Iridium, a jazz club in New York City.
He is survived by wife Dee Randolph, son Randy Randolph and daughter Linda O’Neal, all of Nashville. Funeral services are pending.