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Joe Stanley, Dec. 1, 1935–Jan. 7, 2007.
To five decades’ worth of D.C.–area musicians and fans, saxophonist Joe Stanley was—as the title of his only album claims—the King of the Honky-Tonk Sax.
Stanley (pictured with the Saxtons, circa 1963) passed away Sunday evening, Jan. 7, at the age of 71. He had been diagnosed with brain and lung cancer in early December.
During his 50-plus years in D.C.’s music scene, Stanley led several bands—most notably the Top 40 show band the Saxtons—but he was most widely known as one of D.C.’s most sought-after sidemen. “[He was] the top instrumentalist in town,” says Mark Opsasnick, author of Capitol Rock, a history of the area’s early rock scene. “He was on call all over town.” Bandleaders from rival clubs would contact Stanley while he was onstage at one bar, Opsasnick says, and hire him to play with another band across town later that night.
“You had to do what you had to do to make a living,” Stanley told Opsasnick for Capitol Rock, “and I’d play seven nights a week.”
An original member of the Rainbows—which also featured Marvin Gaye—Stanley played with other D.C. hitmakers such as Link Wray, Don Covay, and Billy Stewart, as well as future Hee Haw star Roy Clark and Charlie “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” Daniels. Before he received his diagnosis, Stanley had been scheduled to tour with Delbert McClinton.
“Joe was the kinda guy…who somehow learned to play nightclub jazz, and R&B, and country, and rock ’n’ roll equally well,” says Bill Holland, longtime D.C. musician and former D.C. bureau chief for Billboard. How Stanley became so versatile, however, remains a mystery. “I don’t know whether he was self-taught; I’m sure he never went to music school,” Holland says. “I think he learned on the street, listening to people play live, and records,” says bassist John Previti, who played on Stanley’s album. “He had no music theory, per se. He was just seat-of-the-pants and ear all the way.”
Whatever his methods, Stanley developed a signature sound. “Nobody has that old-fashioned, real big, fat, Earl Bostic sound anymore,” says rockabilly stalwart Billy Hancock, a friend for 43 years and the last performing member of the Saxtons. “Most of the sax players these days…they go for a sweeter, higher [sound]. His was the big-brass-balls sound.”
Chris Hall, who manages Chick Hall’s Surf Club—the Bladensburg roadhouse where Stanley played a regular gig for the last few years—recalls that his mother was a fan of Bill Black’s Combo. Tired of hearing her family rave about “’this guy Joe,’” Hall recalls, she asked, “’Is he as good as the sax player in Bill Black’s Combo?’” When Chris told his mother that the two sax players were, in fact, the same person, he says, she responded, “’Oh, well, then he’s pretty good.’” (Stanley took over the Combo after Black’s death in ’65.)
“All of the staff loved Joe,” says a longtime Surf Club bartender who gave her name as Lori. “He will be sorely missed. We are all just heartbroken.”
Previti agrees. “With him gone—we just seem to be losing one of the pillars of our whole scene,” he says. “He was one of the people you gather around, you know?”