'Baker Street' by Gerry Rafferty: The making of the rock classic and truth behind that saxophone riff

21 February 2024, 12:11

Gerry Rafferty- Right Down The Line documentary trailer

By Mayer Nissim

Did you know that Bob Holness...

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Raised on a diet of Scottish and Irish folk, Gerry Rafferty wrote a number of songs that are so well-loved that they're pretty much modern standards.

With Stealers Wheel he had 'Stuck In The Middle With You', written with his bandmate Joe Egan.

As a solo star he had 'Right Down The Line' and 'Night Owl' and, probably his best-known hit, 'Baker Street'.

'Baker Street' is renowned for its absolutely stonking saxophone riff, one which was credited at the time for bringing the instrument back into fashion across the world of pop, TV and cinema.

But do you know who wrote the song, where it got in the charts, and – of course – who really played (and wrote) that classic bit of sax?

Who wrote 'Baker Street'?

Gerry Rafferty - Baker Street (Official Video)

If you check the label on the record, it's pretty clear.

'Baker Street' was written by the man who performed it, Gerry Rafferty.

It came three years after the acrimonious breakup of Stealers Wheel, with the lengthy gap a result of legal issues surrounding the split.

Of the track, Gerry once told The Herald: "'Baker Street still makes me about 80,000 a year. It's been a huge earner for me and still gets an enormous amount of airplay all around the world.

"It's every songwriter's ambition to come up with at least one song in their lifetime that's regarded as a classic. And 'Baker Street' is mine.''

Did Bob Holness really play the saxophone riff on 'Baker Street'?

Bob Holness in 1986
Bob Holness in 1986. Picture: Getty Images

Did you know that Bob Holness played the sax... let's just stop there.

Bob Holness, famed radio and TV presenter best remembered as the host of the excellent Blockbusters, obviously didn't play the saxophone on 'Baker Street'.

The real player on the song was Raphael Ravenscroft, a professional saxophonist, which makes a lot more sense.

“He turned up with this real-beat up saxophone,” Rafferty told Folk Roots

“It was falling apart, with the keys falling off and gaffer tape everywhere, but because Raph plays really, really hard it was just the right sound for the track. And the rest is history.”

Raf Ravenscroft on stage with Gerry Rafferty
Raf Ravenscroft on stage with Gerry Rafferty. Picture: Getty Images

So why do so many people think that Bob Holness was the player, then? Indeed, when Bob died in 2012, 'Baker Street' trended on Twitter, and even when Gerry Rafferty himself passed away a year earlier, both 'Baker Street' and 'Bob Holness' trended.

As for who came up with this urban myth, Stuart Maconie says it was him, writing a gag for the 'Believe it or Not' section on the comedy Thrills page in the NME at some point in the 1980s.

"My personal and silly part in a sad story is that as an NME writer, I invented the urban myth claiming that Bob played the sax solo on Gerry's 1978 hit 'Baker Street'," Maconie said after Gerry died.

But it's not that straightforward.

DJ, presenter and troublemaker Stuart Maconie
DJ, presenter and troublemaker Stuart Maconie. Picture: Getty Images

Fellow DJ Tommy Boyd says that he came up with the wacky premise first, when he was writing a quiz for a London radio show long before Maconie's in-print version of the legend.

"The idea of someone as neat and tidy as Bob being able to swing out a raunchy sax came easily," Tommy said.

"And I ran 'True or false: Bob Holness played sax on Gerry Rafferty's 'Baker Street'?' for one night."

That's far from the end of the story though.

Raphael himself has claimed that it was him who came up with the tall tale of Bob Holness's involvement, as a "bit of fun" during interviews.

“I used to be asked 20 or 30 times if I was the person who did it, so to a foreign journalist I said it was Bob Holness, because I had been working with him on a Robinson's advert," Raphael is quoted as saying.

Who wrote the saxophone riff on 'Baker Street'?

Gerry Rafferty live in Belgium in 1978
Gerry Rafferty live in Belgium in 1978. Picture: Getty Images

We've already noted that Gerry Rafferty wrote 'Baker Street' all by himself, so it surely follows that he wrote that riff, too?

Well, yes, in fact, but it took a while for that fact to be established beyond any doubt.

Ravenscroft himself suggested that he had written the riff, or at least put it together from some trad blues playing, after being presented with a song featuring "several gaps".

"In fact, most of what I played was an old blues riff," Ravenscroft is quoted as saying. "If you're asking me: 'Did Gerry hand me a piece of music to play?' then no, he didn't'."

Baker Street (Original Demo)

Rafferty always denied that. He told Folk Roots: "A lot of people believed that the line was written by Raphael Ravenscroft, the sax player, but it was my line. I sang it to him.

"When I wrote the song I saw that bit as an instrumental part but I didn’t know what. We tried electric guitar but it sounded weak, and we tried other things and I think it was Hugh Murphy’s suggestion that we tried saxophone.

"We phoned Pete Zorn to do it, but he said his lip had gone and he couldn’t do it, but he gave us the names of five or six other people. We hadn’t heard of any of them, but one of the names was Raphael Ravenscroft so Hugh said with a name like that we’ll try him!"

Who to believe?

Half a Heart

Well, in 2011, a remastered version of the City to City album was released. As well as the 'Baker Street' we all know and love, the package included a demo version of the song with that riff present and correct, but being played on electric guitar.

As Rafferty's pal Rab Noakes said in the liner notes: "Let's hope [the Baker Street demo] will, at last, silence all who keep on asserting that the saxophone player came up with the melody line. He didn't. He just blew what he was told by the person who did write it, Gerry Rafferty."

But... there's more.

A listen to Steve Marcus's 'Half A Heart' from 1968 – a decade before 'Baker Street' – features a saxophone melody that sounds, shall we say, incredibly familiar. That song was credited to Gary Burton.

What is 'Baker Street' about?

Baker Street station
Baker Street station. Picture: Getty Images

As we've said, 'Baker Street' was written in the period when Gerry Rafferty had left Stealers Wheel but was stuck in a legal battle preventing him from releasing new music.

He was travelling between home in Paisley in Scotland and London for lawyer's meetings, where he stayed with a pal who lived on... Baker Street.

The lyrics flit between the hectic battles in London ("Winding your way down on Baker Street... Well, another crazy day") and the release of getting home and away from it all ("The sun is shinin', it's a new mornin', You're goin', you're goin' home).

After Gerry died, his daughter suggested that further inspiration could have come from Colin Wilson's 1956 book The Outsider, which she said her dad read while travelling between England and Scotland.

When was 'Baker Street' released and where did it get in the charts?

Gerry Raferty - 'Baker Street'
Gerry Raferty - 'Baker Street'. Picture: Alamy

'Baker Street' was released as a single on February 3, 1978, but had actually been available on its parent album City to City a couple of weeks earlier on January 20.

The City to City album went to number six in the UK charts and all the way to number one in the US, and has since gone Gold over here and Platinum Stateside.

'Baker Street' single went to number three in the UK and number two in the US, and the song itself went Platinum in the UK and Gold in the US.

Who has covered 'Baker Street'?

Undercover - Baker Street (Official Video)

With its key moment being a sax break, you might think that most artists would avoid coveting 'Baker Street', but there have actually been some pretty decent versions over the years.

Baker Street

Dance group Undercover took the radical stance with their version and were rewarded with a number two single, which also scored massive success across Europe.

Foo Fighters - Baker Street

Waylon Jennings gave the song a country spin in 1987 to open his album Hangin' Tough, while Foo Fighters covered the song as the B-side for their 1998 single 'My Hero', with the sax riff naturally switched out for a wailing guitar.

It's also been covered by Ali Campbell and Ann Wilson, among others.