Remembering Saxophonist Steve MacKay

Saxophonist Steve MacKay 1949-2015

January, 2016

Sadly, we lost saxophonist Steve MacKay recently (October 2015) and too young (66). Steve was a rock (and blues) sax player, not a jazz player. He probably could, and probably did, play jazz quite well, but that wasnít what he did most of the time. As a rock player he had one of the most impressive resumes around, with tours and recording credits including the Stooges on their classic Funhouse album and their recent reunions, the Violent Femmes, Commander Cody, Club Foot Orchestra, Mitch Woods and Snakefinger.

Personally, I think it is equally cool that he played and recorded with Ibbilly Bibbilly, which was one of my favorite San Francisco based bands in the early 1980s. Steve clearly lived and loved playing. Google him. You'll see that besides playing with the big names and semi-big names, he also played with dozens of other talented underground bands throughout his life, a good portion of them weird and experimental in widely varied ways. Iím pretty sure that they all benefited nicely from his great playing and touch of star power.

My band, the Artichokes, shared a bill with Ibbilly Bibbilly at the worst club in town and we were blown away by the band led by unique vocalist/guitarist Michael Charnes. They had very cool songs and were all good players, but for me, Steve stood out because he had that tone. That genuine early R&B bar-walkin' type repertoire of full-bodied tenor honks, tones, growls and screams that many successful rock players fail to ever get right (many seem to lack the smarts and good taste to even try).

We became friendly with the whole band and occasionally jammed. I felt honored that Steve was willing to play on our big budget recording session. (Made possible thanks to audio engineer extraordinaire Sam Lehmer, who provided studio time and many hours of his time) I took advantage of Steveís generosity and had him bring all of his horns so we could create the sound of a horn section with overdubs of different horns. As I recall, he played all four types of sax during the session. The horn section parts and his solos turned out great and the session went quickly and smoothly.

Our collaborations with Steve MacKay and Ibbilly Bibbilly led to the release of Oranj Productionsí Seaside Curios extended play seven inch vinyl record in 1983. Seaside Curios featured songs from Steve Mackayís Carnal Kitchen, Ibbilly Bibbilly and the Artichokes. Steve played or sang on all of the songs. Steve created a found object collage incorporating a "Seaside Curios" sign which inspired the EP's name and was featured as the artwork on one side of the record sleeve. I believe it is his first released recording as a band leader. The EP received some good reviews and a bit of college radio airplay, but didnít attract significant sales or media attention. Maybe more and better marketing and distribution would have changed that. Maybe not. My understanding is that it took a Stoogeís reunion tour for Steve to be able to stop working a day job for a few years in a row.

We were fortunate to be able to jam and record with Steve occassionally over the following years. It was always a blast.

That Steve had to keep his day job for so much of his working life is proof that there is no justice in this world and talent alone isnít enough to make a good living playing music. I'm not qualified to speculate about why Steve MacKay wasnít more prosperous and well known. His apparent commitment to only playing good, fun music may have been a factor.

I don't know if the periods of obscurity actually bothered Steve. He didnít complain when we spoke, instead he usually spoke enthusiastically about a recently completed tour or his next gig or project. I didn't really know him all that well, but my experience was that he was consistently friendly and generous, showed up on time, and always played like he meant it. RIP.


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