On the 40th anniversary of one of the most iconic songs – and arguably the best sax solo – in all of rock music, djrobblog commemoratively examines two controversial stories – one related to the song itself, the other its chart performance. One that worked out in the artist’s favor, one that didn’t.
It was forty years ago this week that the iconic tune “Baker Street” by late Scotsman Gerry Rafferty made its début on the American charts. Amidst a sea of disco numbers and Saturday Night Fever’s continued dominance of pop radio, Rafferty’s introspective sax-driven pop tune began its chart life at a modest No. 82 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles list on April 22, 1978.
Nine weeks later it would be stalled at No. 2… behind The Bee Gees’ younger brother Andy Gibb and his “Shadow Dancing,” the disco-leaning tune that had claimed the top spot the week before and would maintain its grip at No. 1 for seven straight weeks, relegating “Baker Street” to its eternal status as a famous runner-up smash.
Since then, few songs (and perhaps none from its release year) have been as ubiquitous as Rafferty’s six-minute opus, with its haunting saxophone riff (played by the late British session musician Raphael Ravenscroft) and its poignant lyrics about a frustrated loner trying to escape his problems and find his way in life.
Sung in second-person, “Baker Street” was a melancholic reflection of Rafferty’s then-recent past, inspired by his own break from a previous business relationship (during his post-Stealers Wheel days) and his subsequent regular commute from a town outside Glasgow to a friend’s flat on the actual Baker St. in London.
In just two thoughtfully crafted verses, Rafferty conveyed the despair of being tired, wasted and depressed in a city with “no soul,” the solace one finds in connecting with a trusted friend, and the hope offered by the prospect of a new morning and the euphoria of finally “going home.”
“Baker Street” was as unlikely a big hit as there could be in mid-1978. At a time when disco was dominating and most songs followed a typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus vocal pattern, Rafferty crafted a mid-tempo, mostly instrumental tune (nearly four of its six minutes are sans vocals) that couldn’t have been less danceable and less conforming.
Most notably, Rafferty replaced what would normally be the chorus (i.e., the vocal hook) with that now-famous sax lead, the origins of which are nearly as controversial as the song’s ultimate chart fate (which I’ll get to momentarily).
But first, the sax.
By virtue of having sole songwriting credits for “Baker Street,” Rafferty is also credited for writing the sax part (despite claims to the contrary by Ravenscroft, who died three years after Rafferty in 2014). According to some accounts, Ravenscroft once claimed he not only played but created the sax part to “fill a gap” in Rafferty’s demo. However, a demo of the song has since surfaced where Rafferty plays the sax part with his guitar, suggesting that Rafferty had already created the part when Ravenscroft was called in to work his saxophone magic.
Then in more recent years, to further fuel the controversy surrounding the sax solo’s origins, tapes surfaced of a different song from a decade earlier with a similar sounding sax riff, leading some to speculate that neither Rafferty nor his erstwhile sax player, Ravenscroft, created the famous section, having instead interpolated it from the earlier tune.
That tune, a little known song called “Half A Heart” by a tenor sax player named Steve Marcus who has also since deceased, contains a riff very similar to the refrain used in “Baker Street.” This similarity was explored in 2015 by writer Adam Chandler for an article in The Atlantic.
In it, Chandler interviewed Gary Burton, the person who was credited for writing “Half A Heart,” (and a 1960s classmate of Marcus) who had no recollection of writing it or any knowledge of a connection to “Baker Street” at the time of the interview. He later acquiesced after playing both tunes side by side, acknowledging the similarities and guessing that either Rafferty or Ravenscroft must have heard “Half A Heart” before recording “Baker Street” given how close the two songs’ sax riffs were.
(You can hear the audio of the earlier tune in the clip below and judge for yourself.)
With all the main characters in this mini drama (Rafferty, Ravenscroft and Marcus) now deceased, the likelihood of there ever being any litigation the likes of that involving “My Sweet Lord” and “He’s So Fine” (or for you millennials, “Blurred Lines” and “Got To Give It Up”) is slim to none. This story is best served as Internet fodder, the kind of thing sleuths love but can never be proven in a court of law.
As such, “Baker Street,” famous sax riff and all, will be immortalized in rock lore as Rafferty’s sole creation.
Yet, while Gerry Rafferty may be on the winning side of that controversy, there’s an even greater one that history will forever record him as being doomed… one involving its then-record-setting run at No. 2 on the pop charts (on the losing side of a two-song chart battle with Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing”).
The controversial No 2 chart peak:
For the chart part of this story, it’s worth noting that the six frustrating weeks “Baker Street” spent in the runner-up slot behind Gibb on the Hot 100 were tied for the longest any song had spent there in the chart’s then-20-year history (although that has been matched and surpassed many times in the four decades since).
Yet among the many tales of “Baker Street’s” undying legacy is the one involving a bit of chart shenanigans that may have robbed Rafferty of ascending to that coveted No. 1 spot.
As reported in several publications since, legend has it that in one of its final weeks at No. 2 in July 1978, Billboard had actually calculated “Baker Street” to be No. 1. At the time, Billboard’s charts were based on phoned-in radio station lists and record store reports, which staffers or computers would then compile, before the advent of more modern and accurate airplay and sales tracking technology in the early 1990s.
With the chart being declared final and Rafferty newly perched at No. 1, Billboard was set to go to print. As they did each week, the trade mag’s staffers phoned the new chart info to radio stations and even the syndicated countdown radio program “American Top 40 with Casey Kasem,” which culled its rankings from the Hot 100. That weekly show then allegedly went into production with the latest chart information, this time with a new No. 1 single in “Baker Street.”
But an alleged suspicious “correction” by Billboard at the last minute gave Gibb the No. 1 spot back, and the order of things remained as they had been for those final weeks at No. 2 for “Baker Street.”
Years later that suspicious recount was attributed to then-chart manager Bill Wardlow. It was alleged that Wardlow had a change of heart about the No. 1 position after having dined with Andy Gibb’s management on the night the chart was compiled. The story goes that Wardlow casually mentioned over dinner that Gibb’s tune had been displaced by Rafferty’s – much to RSO Records’ displeasure.
Gibb reportedly threatened to back out of a commitment to perform at the Billboard Disco Forum in New York (Wardlow’s pet project) if “Shadow Dancing” was not kept at No. 1. Under Wardlow‘s watch as chart manager, Gibb’s tune mysteriously remained at the top (for those seven weeks), holding “Baker Street” at No. 2 for the record-setting six weeks, with neither leaving their perches until that August when both songs finally lost steam and relinquished their long-held chart positions to newer hits.
The story also goes that when Billboard staffers placed the emergency phone call to AT40 informing them of the chart “error” that had mistakenly placed “Baker Street” at No. 1, the producers of the syndicated countdown program had to re-tape the last portion of the show that contained the top two songs to correct Billboard’s “mistake.” Allegedly, when Wardlow was later pressed for an explanation as to why the chart had changed, he couldn’t give a plausible one.
Wardlow ultimately left Billboard in 1982 following several controversial years in which certain record companies – Andy Gibb’s label RSO Records among them – benefited from some dubious chart anomalies. In 1978, for instance, the RSO label began the year with six consecutive No. 1 singles spanning five months without interruption. Three additional RSO No. 1 singles followed before August for a total of nine of the year’s first 14 chart-toppers, including “Shadow Dancing.”
In the end it was “Shadow Dancing” that denied “Baker Street” the No. 1 chart status that would have placed it among the other legendary No. 1 pop hits in American chart history.
Instead, “Baker Street” has been regarded as one of the biggest, most beloved No. 2 songs in that history.
That’s not a bad place to be, except when you really should have been No. 1.
P.S. Billboard’s competition at the time, Cashbox Magazine, had its own weekly Top 100 singles chart. On that list, Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” dethroned “Shadow Dancing” from No. 1 and remained at the top for two weeks in July 1978.