History has not been kind to the dreaded Varitone saxophone.
What is the Varitone? It’s an electric saxophone, simply put, part of a broader post-War trend of oddball, electrified instruments and effects.
Except for a control box with visible knobs and switches, and a cable plugged in to a separate amplifier, the Varitone looked much like a regular saxophone, but like the electric sitar or the Mandocaster the Varitone was always more than just an acoustic instrument with an electric pickup plopped into it. The entire instrument was engineered around the placement of its electronics. (For a good technical overview and picture of the Varitone saxophone, check out this article.)
The Varitone’s effect is somewhat harder to describe. The sound was, if nothing else, original. The electronics of the Varitone allowed you to add echo and tremolo to the saxophone’s signal, but the instrument’s most obvious attribute was its sub-octave buzzing effect and curious, almost vocal-like overtones. You knew it when you heard it, I’ll put it that way.
Developed around 1965 by esteemed French instrument maker Selmer Company, the Varitone saxophone would first go into commercial production a few years later. Company management must have been encouraged when Chicago-based saxophonist Eddie Harris scored almost immediately with 1968’s “Listen Here” (hear excerpt here, watch great vintage footage here), a funky, Latin-tinged hit instrumental that featured the new contraption prominently. Harris, along with creating one of jazz’s biggest-selling hits with his 1961 jazz version of the Ernest Gold theme “Exodus,” would go on in the late ‘60s to be the Varitone’s staunchest champion. Themed albums like The Electrifying Eddie Harris, Silver Cycles and Plug Me In would be wild explorations of the instrument as well as some of Atlantic Records’ top ‘60s jazz sellers.
Unfortunately for Selmer, Eddie Harris – with a few other popular dabblers like Sonny Stitt and John Klemmer – would basically be the Varitone’s only popular champion. Jazz’s critical establishment has rarely looked favorably upon gadgetry, especially electronic gadgetry, especially electronic gadgetry that reconfigured an iconic jazz instrument like the saxophone. The record-buying public? They seemed intrigued by the Varitone, at least. It wasn’t psychedelic, exactly, just different. There was always something of the air of novelty that seemed to hover about the instrument, though. You might catch a glimpse of the Varitone on the occasional soul or jazz record, but by the late ‘70s, hardly a decade after its introduction, the contrivance was basically extinct.
1. Sonny Cox, Chocolate Candy (Bell)
Landon “Sonny” Cox was a soul jazz saxophonist who, with his trio the Three Souls (including organist Ken Prince and drummer Robert Shy), worked the vibrant Chicago club scene of the ‘60s. 1969’s “Chocolate Candy” followed several Three Souls albums for the Argo jazz label, and one album (The Wailer) under Cox’s own name on Cadet Records (Argo’s sister label). “Chocolate Candy,” which only appeared in 45 form, would be Cox’s final commercial effort.
Penned by hip freelance guitarist Phil Upchurch and produced by Chicago studio legend Richard Evans, this selection brims with the accessible earthiness and vamping rhythms so characteristic of ‘60s soul jazz. At its core this selection is pretty by-the-numbers soul jazz, actually, which I think was part of the Varitone’s initial appeal for a lot of the jazz saxophonists who dared pick it up. It changed anything, now matter how banal, into an instantly groovy situation.
Sonny Cox would later coach three Illinois boys’ high school basketball state champion teams.
2. Jerome Richardson, Soul Cry (Part I) (Verve)
A highly respected saxophonist and flautist, Jerome Richardson would release a handful of solo albums throughout a prolific life in jazz, but it’s mostly his career as a journeyman session saxophonist – working with everyone from Betty Carter and Charles Mingus to Steely Dan and Quincy Jones – for which he made a lasting mark.
3. Jerome Richardson, Soul Cry (Part II) (Verve)
Session pop and jazz work was good work if you could find it, and many a jazz musician indeed sought it out. Session work, however, demanded versatility, professionalism and – no matter one’s credentials – the willingness to make concessions to the latest trends. This would never be a problem for Jerome Richardson.
If jazz purists liked to decry to the Varitone in the ‘60s, then “Soul Cry” must have seemed like the apocalypse itself, a portent of the dark year when robots would walk the earth and technology taught its own metal self to get funky. From the guitar, piano and bass down to the Varitone (of course), the overdubbed flute, yes, and that unidentifiable whistle that imbues side two with a rare tea kitchen quality: everything on this obscure 1968 gem is electric.
Jerome Richardson passed on in 2000.
** And… now you can hear the unbroken edit of “Soul Cry,” courtesy of Mr. Fab from Music For Maniacs. Thank you sir! **
Jerome Richardson, Soul Cry (Parts I and II) (Verve)
4. Soul Merchants, For “Wes” (Weis)
Despite Weis Records’ distribution out of Memphis (courtesy of Volt Records), the Soul Merchants were another Chicago crew, their leader Eddie Silvers a veteran songwriter and saxophonist on the Windy City’s R&B; and jazz scene.
Like George Benson’s “I Remember Wes,” Kenny Burrell’s “Blues for Wes” and David T. Walker’s “Direction Wes,” this selection was one of a spate of tribute songs to jazz guitar legend Wes Montgomery following his 1968 death.
The lush strings, lilt of Latin percussion and Wes Montgomery-style “octave” guitar chording are all very easygoing and enjoyable here. Even with a brief, dramatic appearance of the Varitone, “For ‘Wes’” never drops its cool demeanor, though there’s still no obvious reason that such a lavish production would end after barely two minutes. Such vehicles would sometimes just succumb to the weight of their own hipness, apparently.
The Soul Merchants likely recorded and released this selection in 1969.