By the end of 1964, the saxophone's fate was pretty much sealed. For more than 30 years, the reed instrument along with the trumpet had been played by superstar jazz performers who typically led groups or were at least main soloists. But with pop-rock's arrival in the early 1960s, the Beatles' euphoric invasion in '64 and Bob Dylan's electric conversion in mid-'65, the saxophone was fast taking a backseat to the electric guitar.
Panicked, the Selmer Co. began experimenting with an electronic saxophone. The instrument known as the Varitone featured a microphone inside and pickup device outside so that normal playing technique would not have to be altered. Wires ran from the pickup to an amp, and knobs allowed the musician to control the volume and tone quality. In addition, the musician could add echo, tremolo and a synthesized tone an octave below the note played. Selmer's hope was that by electrifying the sax, jazz players would embrace it, giving the instrument sex-appeal and attracting younger audiences.
But the Varitone's sound wasn't that electric sounding nor was it anything like the electronic hookups that would be attached to trumpets in later years to make them sound like piercing guitars. Instead, the Varitone merely made the saxophone sound as if it had swallowed a kazoo.
One of the first saxophonists to record on Selmer's Varitone was Eddie Harris in March 1966 (Mean Greens for Atlantic). Hot on Harris' heels was Sonny Stitt, whose first electric sax date was What's New!!! Stitt Plays the Varitone in July '66 for Roulette. While Harris embraced the instrument and leveraged well for soul-jazz, Stitt never was fully comfortable playing it given his strong bebop roots.
Stitt used the Varitone on 13 albums between 1966 and 1971 for a range of record labels. In the years after the Varitone's appeal peaked, the instrument quickly came to be viewed by many jazz fans as a source of amusement—a silly, ill-conceived attempt to please the kids. As for Stitt's Varitone recordings, they've been dismissed, forgotten and in some cases scorned.
But not so fast. After giving most of his Varitone albums a fresh listen, I've found that many sound much more interesting than I remember them. In short, Stitt's tenor Varitone ventures have a richer, fuller tone while his alto Varitone dates typically are less successful, bordering on annoying. What's more, Stitt over time found the instrument's sweet spot and used it to great effect.
Here are Stitt's Varitone albums:
What's New!!!—Roulette/July 1966. Joe Wilder, Eddie Preston (tp) J.J. Johnson (tb) Sonny Stitt (el-as,el-ts) Illinois Jacquet (ts,el-ts-1) George Berg (bar) Billy Taylor (p) / Ellis Larkins (p) Wild Bill Davis (org) / Ernie Hayes (org) Mike Mainieri (vib) Les Spann (g) Jan Arnet (b) / George Duvivier (b) Walter Perkins (d). Never issued on CD.
I Keep Coming Back! Sonny Stitt on the Varitone—Roulette/1966. Clark Terry, Joe Newman (tp,flugelhornn) Urbie Green, Dickie Harris (tb) Sonny Stitt (varitone-sax) Jerry Dodgion (as) Hank Freeman (sax) SEldon Powell (ts) George Berg (bar) Ellis Larkins (p) Mike Mainieri (vib) Les Spann (g) George Duvivier (b) or Milt Hinton (b) Walter Perkins (d). Never issued on CD.
Parallel-a-Stitt: Stitt on the Varitone—Roulette/1967. Sonny Stitt (varitone) Jerome Richardson (alto-fl) George Berg (bar) Don Patterson (org) George Duvivier (b) Walter Jones (d) + others. Never issued on CD.
Made for Each Other—Delmark/July 1968. With organist Don Patterson and drummer Billy James. Solid soulful organ trio date with the sound of the Varitone playing smartly up against the Hammond B-3. You'll find Made for Each Other here.
Soul Electricity—Prestige/Sept. 1968. Sonny Stitt (varitone as,ts) Don Patterson (org) Billy Butler (g) Billy James (d). Superb date. Among the best in the series. Tracks 7-14 make up Soul Electricity on the CD Legends of Acid Jazz: Sonny Stitt/Don Patterson Vol. 2.
Little Green Apples—Solid State/Oct. 1968. Joseph De Angelis, Don Corrado (fhr) Sonny Stitt (varitone as) Haywood Henry (bar) Paul Griffin (p) Eric Gale (g) Bob Bushnell (el-b) Joe Marshall (d) Jimmy Mundy (arr,cond). Never issued on CD.
Come Hither—Solid State/1968. Joseph De Angelis, Don Corrado (fhr) Sonny Stitt (varitone as) Jerome Richardson (bar) Paul Griffin (p,org) Billy Butler (g) Bob Bushnell (el-b) Joe Marshall (d) Jimmy Mundy (arr). Never issued on CD, but probably among the worst in the Varitone series.
Brothers 4—Prestige/Sept. 1969. Sonny Stitt (ts,varitone sax) Don Patterson (org) Grant Green (g) Billy James (d). This was a Patterson date with plenty of Stitt cooking. You'll find Brothers 4 here, which includes Donnybrook, an album with tracks recorded at the same session.
Night Letter—Prestige/Oct. 1969. Sonny Stitt (varitone) Gene Ludwig (org) Pat Martino (g) Randy Gelispie (d). A more soulful date, particularly on the gorgeous ballads When It's Sleepy Time Down South and Pretend. Night Letter is available on the two-fer CD Night Letter/Soul Shack (tracks 7-12).
Turn It On!—Prestige/Jan. 1971. Virgil Jones (tp) Sonny Stitt (el-ts) Leon Spencer, Jr. (org) Melvin Sparks (g) Idris Muhammad (d). A mix of funky-soul tracks, ballads and two standards (Cry Me a River and There Are Such Things). Turn It On! is part of the two-fer CD Sonny Stitt: Legends of Acid Jazz (tracks 1-5). The other half is Black Vibrations (see below).
You Talk That Talk!—Prestige/Feb. 1971. Gene Ammons/Sonny Stitt : Gene Ammons (ts) Sonny Stitt (ts,el-sax) Leon Spencer, Jr. (org) George Freeman (g) Idris Muhammad (d). A killer album and one of the finest that Sonny recorded in the '70s. Includes boastful soul-jazz blues as well as a big ballad each for Stitt (Body and Soul) and Ammons (The Sun Died). You'll find You Talk That Talk! as part of the CD Gene Ammons: Legends of Acid Jazz (tracks 7-12).
Just the Way It Was: Live at the Left Bank—Label M/March 1971. Sonny Stitt (sax) Don Patterson (org) Billy James (d). A sizzlingly successful date at the Famous Ballroom at the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore. You'll find Just the Way It Was on Sonny Stitt: Live and Rare Sessions (Deuces Wild, Samba de Orpheus, Who Can I Turn To?, Cry Me a River, The Shadow of Your Smile and Blues Up and Down).
Black Vibrations—Prestige/July 1971. Virgil Jones (tp) Sonny Stitt (el-ts) Leon Spencer, Jr. (org) Melvin Sparks (g) Idris Muhammad (d). A beautifully paced soul-jazz album, particularly Goin' to DC, Aires and Where Is Love. A fitting, sensual exit from the Varitone for Stitt. You'll find Black Vibrations on Sonny Stitt: Legends of Acid Jazz (tracks 6-11).