David Sanborn, saxophonist best known for his work with David Bowie – obituary

David Sanborn in 1986 with his Grammy Award for his album Double Vision: he won six Grammys during his career
David Sanborn in 1986 with his Grammy Award for his album Double Vision: he won six Grammys during his career - Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

David Sanborn, who has died aged 78, was an alto saxophonist whose blend of jazz, pop and R&B brought the likes of David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder to his door; it was said that he “put the saxophone back into rock’n’roll”.

He released 25 albums across a 60-year career, but he was probably best known for his work with Bowie, and his playing was the defining feature of the singer’s “blue-eyed soul” hit Young Americans and the album of which it was the title track.

“On the Young Americans tour, Bowie would sometimes let the band play for 20 minutes before he came on,” Sanborn recalled. “On the album there was no lead guitar, so I played the role of lead guitar. I was all over that record.”

He always resisted pigeonholing. “I’m not so interested in what is or isn’t jazz,” he said in 2017. “The guardians of the gate can be quite combative, but what are they protecting? Jazz has always absorbed and transformed what’s around it. It’s not like ‘When the cha-cha went away, music died.’ ”

David Sanborn, far left, with David Bowie on The Dick Cavett Show
David Sanborn, far left, with David Bowie on The Dick Cavett Show in December 1974 - Ann Limongello/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

David Sanborn was born in Tampa, Florida, on July 30 1945, but grew up in Kirkwood, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri, where his father was stationed in the US Air Force.

He contracted polio aged three and was in an iron lung for a year. As he got older, he recalled, “I used to lie in bed a lot, listening to the radio, which was my theatre of the imagination.” As part of his therapy he switched from piano to saxophone when he was 11 to build up his lungs; within three years he was on stage in local clubs playing with such notable blues figures as Albert King and Little Milton.

He studied music at Northwestern University in Illinois then transferred to the University of Iowa, where he studied with the acclaimed jazz saxist JR Monterose. He followed a friend’s advice and moved to California, where he joined the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, with whom he appeared at Woodstock.

That led to a tour with Stevie Wonder and an appearance on his 1972 album Talking Book, and Sanborn became a much sought-after session player. In 1975, besides playing with Bowie, he appeared on Bruce Springsteen’s album Born to Run, as well as releasing his own first solo album, Taking Off.

During the 1970s he also played with, among others, BB King, Paul Simon (Still Crazy After All These Years), Elton John, Chaka Khan, Kenny Loggins and the Eagles (The Sad Café on their 1979 LP The Long Run), while in the following decade he numbered among his collaborators Aretha Franklin, Billy Joel, Roger Waters, Clapton and the Rolling Stones (their 1983 album Undercover).

His solo albums Hideaway (1979) and Voyeur (1981) each sold more than half a million copies – good going for jazz. The former provided the track Seduction (written by Giorgio Moroder) for the 1980 film American Gigolo, while the latter won Sanborn the first of his six Grammy Awards, for best R&B instrumental performance on All I Need is You.

On stage in The Hague with Eric Clapton in 1977
On stage in The Hague with Eric Clapton in 1977 - Paul Bergen/Redferns

From 1988 to 1990 he hosted the US television show Night Music, as well as the syndicated The Jazz Show on radio. As for his live work, he was always able to fill decent-sized auditoria with ease.

Sanborn was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2018 but continued to tour, as well as presenting a podcast, As We Speak – interviewing such figures as Sonny Rollins – until his death from complications of the disease.

David Sanborn is survived by his wife Alice Soyer, a fellow musician, and his son Jonathan.

David Sanborn, born July 30 1945, died May 12 2024