Sad news for ska and reggae lovers, the legendary The Beat‘s Jamaica-born saxophonist Lionel Augustus Martin better known as Saxa passed away at 87 years old during his sleep.

He first joined the Birmingham’s outfit in 1979 just as session musician adding his sax to the band’s highly successful first 2 Tone‘s single, the cover of Smokey Robinson classic ‘Tears Of A Clown’, but immediately became, due also to his supposed (‘So he says – and if Saxa says you’d better believe it’) priceless experience gained at the court of first wave of ska and rocksteady pioneers like Prince Buster, Laurel Aitken and Desmond Dekker and even The Beatles!, an irreplaceable key element of the band’s sound.

Ranking Roger few years ago spoke about Saxa’s early introduction, through a Jamaican nurse, to the group ‘He’d played in various bands around town, all backgrounds, from Irish to calypso. Basically, he was a jazz man. I was a bit wary of him at first. His dress sense was straight out of Shaft! He seemed a bit noisy, a bit drunk. I thought,He’s trouble.But the way he played sax was like nothing I’d ever heard before. And we realised, all the time, he was teaching us. He’d say things like,one hand wash the other, and you only later got what he meant’.

Not only his signature sax solo notes were essential to give that laidback and haunting feel, ‘He’s like the Dali with a saxophone in his hand’, but his mystical and spiritual approach to life and music, combined with his older age, gave him also a prominent role of mentor and shaman for the younger members. In 1980 The Beat released their debut album ‘I Just Can’t Stop It’, mixing crispy punk energy and fresh and bouncy ska and reggae rhythms with political lyrics, it would turn to be one of that year most significant album.

On the already prodigious sonic foundations provided by Everett Morton’s reggae drums, David Steele’s punk basslines, Dave Wakeling and Andy Cox’s power-pop melodies, Ranking Roger toasting vocals, were right the ubiquitous and virtuoso blasts from Saxa ‘the elder’ horn that gave the sound that unique extra flavour.

Trying to move on from a consolidated formula, the 1981’s second album ‘Wha’ppen?’ will end up being their most relaxed work, always able to craft amazing pop melodies with bittersweet lyrics, ‘Californians and surfers, people like that – that album was made for them’ said Ranking Roger.

The year later that’s the time of the jangly breeze pop of their third and final full length ‘Special Beat Service, probably their more organic, best arranged and complete album, according to many also their best. In the U.S. the single ‘Save It For Later’ went suddenly to be a hit in the college circuit, paving the way to some extensive and stressfull tours with Talking Heads, and The Clash among others, from which Saxa, due to an uncertain health condition (too much ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken and Dubweiser’), was forced to withdraw.

That did not prevent him playing his ace sax solos on the records by both the groups born out of The Beat’s split up, Fine Young Cannibals and General Public, and later he will join drummer Everett Morton in The International Beat.

Many agree about Saxa’s instrumental role of paving the way for an extensive use of the saxophone solos throughout the 80s by bands like Oingo Boingo, Roxy Music, Duran Duran, INXS, Spandau Ballet, Wham to name a few, unfortunately a habit too easily missed nowadays.

I cannot conclude this little tribute to the art and  personality of Saxa without mentioning the funny episode during the show at Milton Keynes Bowl opening for David Bowie, as narrated by Dave Wakeling: ‘Saxa who was in his 60s then, our old saxophone player, was a bit mad because they hadn’t got his favorite beer in the refrigerator. David Bowie came and said hello to us, which was remarkable, while he was in his stage clothes wearing black pants and a black vest with a white shirt on. He comes in our trailer and says, ‘really great to do be doing some shows with you, I’m very pleased. I just wanted to check to see if everything is ok. Do you have everything you need?’. Saxa sitting in the back of the bus says (in a Jamaican accent) ‘Hay sonny boy come with me’ and puts his arm around Bowie dragging him to the fridge Saxa opens it up and says ‘You see any Red Stripe in there?’ Bowie’s replies, “No I don’t “. To which Saxa says ‘Ah Sonny Boy, that’s what we need!’ Bowie responds, ‘Right away’ and dashed out the caravan. About 10 minutes later another guy shows up with a case of Red Stripe. Saxa, being all happy, says ‘Nice man there, who is him anyway coming in the caravan like that?’ and I said, well that’s David Bowie! Saxa replies ‘Me thought he was a waiter!’ It got into the papers in England, and they made a huge fuss about it. ‘David Bowie pays the price for looking like a New York waiter on stage’.

In an old interview Dave Wakelings said ‘Saxa taught The Beat a great deal about music. The spiritual impact on why you become a musician. What’s the purpose of doing a song in the first place? It’s about heart to heart, from your heart to the listeners heart. Saxa taught The Beat the connection within music’.

A truly unique man of music.

Fabrizio Lusso