‘Baker Street’: The Mystery of Rock's Greatest Sax Riff

The disputed history behind Gerry Rafferty’s 1978 hit

'Baker Street' music video (YouTube)

In the summer of 1978, Gerry Rafferty's song “Baker Street” became a top-five hit in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

And for good reason. If there were an official anthem for playing darts alone in an empty roadside bar during a rainstorm, it would be “Baker Street.” And while there’s no data to back it up, “Baker Street” is undoubtedly the top song to idle to in a driveway before cutting the engine to your Dodge Aspen. (Both of these were popular hobbies in the year 1978.)

The video for “Baker Street” has been viewed over 5 million times. Its most popular comment is this: “This song makes me think of the Summer of 1978. Just graduated high school and was getting ready to head off to college. Nice memories.” (Thanks, Jack.)

Many listeners come to “Baker Street” (and stay) for its hypnotic saxophone line. It’s a haunting sound that drops bread crumbs from a listener’s pocket for their melancholy to follow. But few people know the origin story of rock’s most iconic sax riff, which is complicated, to say the least.

The man behind the saxophone was Raphael Ravenscroft, who in addition to having the best-ever name for a session saxophonist, claims to have authored the riff. According to his account, “Baker Street” had several gaps in it when he was hired to play, and he filled them.

“In fact, most of what I played was an old blues riff,” he once explained. “If you’re asking me: ‘Did Gerry hand me a piece of music to play?’ then no, he didn’t.”

The testimony of Ravenscoft, who died last year, seems to be refuted by the existence of an early demo of the song, where the guitar replaces the sax. That’s not to diminish Ravenscroft because, denuded of the sax, “Baker Street” sounds like another middling acid trip of a song in a decade full of them.

Given the song’s ubiquity and influence, it’s understandable that Ravenscroft might later fib about his role. Also, according to legend, he was only paid £27 for his contribution, while Rafferty was said to have made £80,000 in annual royalties until his death in 2011. But the song did benefit Ravenscoft’s career, and he went on to work with Pink Floyd, Marvin Gaye, and Daft Punk.

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The guitarist Hugh Burns has scored movies like Die Another Day and The Hobbit, and played with the likes of Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Jack Bruce, and George Michael throughout his storied career. Burns is responsible for the blistering guitar solo on “Baker Street ” and considers working with Gerry Rafferty one of his life’s great honors.

“Quite frankly, I loved his songs. I regard it as a great good fortune that I was able to meet and contribute something to Gerry’s music,” he told me over the phone from England. “I did six albums with him. I probably did more music with him than any other musician.” He was also friends with Ravenscroft and toured with him.

Burns was performing on the road with Jack Bruce in 1978 when he made arrangements to visit the London studio where Rafferty’s album City to City was being recorded. “I went to the studio after I played the gig and I think one of the first songs we played was ‘Baker Street.’ And I said, ‘This is fantastic. This is a great song.’”

Burns told me that there’s no question that Rafferty came up with the music that became the famous riff line on “Baker Street.” After Burns laid down the solo, Rafferty asked him to “have a go at what obviously became very famous, which was the sax line.” Burns tried it on guitar, but the two men agreed that it would be better on the saxophone. “That’s the way I always saw it,” he remembers Rafferty telling him at the time.

“It’s important to say that in the case of that particular instrumental opening to ‘Baker Street,’ it was entirely Gerry’s line,” said Burns. He also referenced the demo, explaining that it was Rafferty himself playing the line on guitar.

Then, in the most offhand, glory-belying way, Burns dropped in this aside:

Strangely enough, another record that I played on, which was a massive hit, certainly in this country and I think in America as well, was called “Careless Whisper,” that also had a massive opening solo. And the interesting thing is that that sax solo, the line itself, was also given by the singer [George Michael]. There’s no question about that either.

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So, it seems clear enough. Rafferty came up with the hook. But depending on whom you ask, the intrigue doesn’t quite end there. For decades in England, for instance, there was a widely believed urban myth that Bob Holness, the buttoned-up British gameshow host, had actually performed the saxophone solo in “Baker Street.”

And there’s still another wrinkle on the other side of the pond. Back in 1968, 10 years before “Baker Street” was recorded, Steve Marcus, a tenor sax player who toured with the jazz great Buddy Rich, released Tomorrow Never Knows, the first and only record under his own name.

The jazz-rock fusion album was almost exclusively of cover songs such as The Beatles’ title track. It also included a few original compositions, including a song called “Half a Heart.” The first nine seconds may give you chills.

The Internet is a conspiracy-theory clearing house, and yet the connection between “Baker Street” and the opening riff of “Half a Heart” lives in semi-ubiquity. Marcus passed away in 2005 and none of the tributes to him seem to make mention of it. It’s a topic that’s since been remaindered to the small music forums at the dusty edges of the Internet.

Curiously though, the composition of “Half a Heart” is credited to Gary Burton, a vibraphonist and composer, who went to Berklee College of Music with Marcus in the early 1960s and lived down the block from him when the two moved from Boston to New York to start their music careers.

When I reached out to Burton earlier this week to ask him if he or Marcus had ever made the connection to “Baker Street,” he was caught a little off-guard.

Honestly, until receiving your email, I had never heard of Gerry Rafferty, or the song “Baker Street,” so I’m pretty sure I don’t have any meaningful insight to offer specifically about the song. I just now went to the Internet and, sure enough, found out the history of Rafferty and “Baker Street,” and viewed a YouTube performance of it. The sax solo did sound vaguely familiar, so perhaps I have heard this in the past on the radio somewhere along the way.

He told me that he and Marcus had been best friends at a time and wanted to know what the connection to Steve Marcus was, since Ravenscroft is listed as the saxophonist on “Baker Street.” When I replied that Rafferty’s song sounded suspiciously familiar to Marcus’s song “Half a Heart,” he didn’t buy it on principle.

“Truthfully, I sort of doubt that a British saxophonist would have even of heard Marcus’s record, since it was little publicized and truly under the radar, even in the U.S.,” he wrote, later explaining that he thought the record had sold maybe 1,000 copies. “It disappeared.”

But when we spoke on the phone later, he’d changed his mind. “After listening to the two songs side-by-side, I have to say they are close enough that it seems almost certain that the British saxophone player [Ravenscoft] must have heard Steve’s record.” He added that since “Half a Heart” came out 10 years before “Baker Street,” someone must have heard the record. “It’s almost identical, only a little bit different and that wouldn’t happen by chance seeing as it was so close.”

Despite being credited with the song, at least across the Internet, Burton himself hadn’t been familiar with “Half a Heart.” Moreover, he was baffled when I told him that he had been listed as the song’s composer.

Isn’t that interesting because I definitely did not compose it. I never heard before until I just now listened, but I am sure if I had actually written the song back in the day I would have retained my copyright as I always did and would have been aware of it.

Burton surmised that if the credit weren’t a mistake, it constituted some kind of shoutout from Marcus. Though they had drifted apart by 1968, Burton visited in the studio while he was recording Tomorrow Never Knows. “It was a big deal for Steve to make a record on his own,” he said. “All his friends were kind of wishing him well.”

Hugh Burns hadn’t heard “Half a Heart,” but he was dismissive of the idea that it had been lifted from something else, at least intentionally.

“With due respect, there’s only 13 chromatic notes,” he said. “There are lots and lots of instances where things are very similar.”​ He added that in 30 years of playing, he never encountered anyone who asked for or wanted to specifically copy another piece of music.

In conversations with both Burns and Burton, a controversy and lawsuit involving George Harrison came up. In the “My Sweet Lord” case, Harrison admitted he simply hadn’t realized that the song so closely resembled “He’s So Fine,” made most famous by The Chiffons. Or as Burton put it, “You hear something, your brain forgets.”

“Musically, all the decisions on a Gerry Rafferty album, all the decisions on ‘yes, that stays,’ or ‘no, that goes’ were fundamentally his,” said Burns. “It’s important to understand that. He was an artist through and though.”

* * *

Seemingly alone in its era, “Baker Street” managed to stand out at the height of punk and new wave and also shined through the summer of Grease and the twilight of disco’s last saccharine gleaming. (The song spent six weeks stuck at No. 2 on the American Billboard charts behind Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing.”)

No matter the true genesis of its sax riff, the song still endures. In 2010, “Baker Street” was honored by BMI for achieving 5 million radio plays worldwide. Its fellow honorees that year—“Come Together,” “Candle in the Wind,” and “Build Me Up Buttercup”—deliver some sense of the song’s real reach.

“Baker Street” has been covered by a wildly diverse set of outfits, most virtuously by Waylon Jennings and the London Symphony Orchestra, most sentimentally by Lisa Simpson, and most blandly by the Foo Fighters and Rick Springfield. It’s Springfield’s failure to make a glam-rock version song compelling in particular that helps in deciphering the extremely unconventional allure of “Baker Street,” a song ultimately about depression, transition, and weary aspiration.

I asked Burns why he thought “Baker Street” is still a staple nearly 40 years after its release.

First, he [Rafferty] wrote from his experience. So what you get is someone’s heartfelt experience and you put that into the lyric and into the song. The lyric and the melody fuse beautifully and the lyric is complemented by the melody. The music itself—the orchestration, so to speak— compliments the lyric in a perfect way.

Burns also nodded to the song’s unusual structure, which he compared in its unorthodox nature, to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

“It’s not just opening, verse, chorus,” he said. “It doesn’t do that. It goes through a little kind of journey, it takes you through a journey and so, in some sense, it’s a very complete composition, which is unusual for popular music at that time. People weren’t quite used to that.”

Of course, there’s also something about the saxophone. In a 2011 episode of the NBC show 30 Rock, which aired the same year that Rafferty died, Tina Fey’s character paces the streets faced with the prospects of losing her job as a television writer. She encounters an unmerry troupe of subway-dwelling people “whose professions are no longer a thing.” Falling into that category are a travel agent, an American auto worker, the CEO of Friendster and, for the biggest punchline, a guy who “played dynamite saxophone solos in rock-and-roll songs.”

According to Burns, “a lot of the songs that seem to have some longevity tend to feature, for the most part, real instruments.” For a while, the saxophone was a key feature of that dynamic. Burns isn’t ruling out its return.

Musical is very cyclical. You never know a new generation of young musicians coming up [might bring back the sax]. I’ve got nothing against electronics. In the right music it sounds fantastic, it’s the only way to make certain kinds of music. But there’s something special about four or five guys in a studio and working with an artist and honing whatever it is that the song is and fine-tuning it. A lot of great music was made that way.

“Baker Street” and “Half a Heart” are songs that were made that way. We may never know if one influenced the other or it was just the alchemy of two different studios coming up with something unmistakably great. There’s enough evidence to be suspicious and more than enough time to enjoy them both.