Is Bill Clinton actually good at the saxophone?

28 October 2021, 16:19 | Updated: 1 November 2021, 11:28

Bill Clinton poses in front of a Kenny G poster
Bill Clinton poses in front of a Kenny G poster. Picture: Alamy

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

The 42nd President of the United States of America is one of the most famous examples of politicians who also have a musical talent – but just how good is the former leader of the free world at the saxophone?

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In 1993, as the world was welcoming a new US President, and it wasn't just rousing speeches that were being heard from the new POTUS. During the official inaugural ball that day, President Bill Clinton picked up his saxophone to celebrate with some of his own music-making on the biggest stage of all.

Clinton, who had previously been Governor of Arkansas, was already pretty famous for his woodwind antics, performing to the nation on the late-night TV show The Arsenio Hall Show.

It was there where we were all gifted that iconic image of the leader of the free world in *those sunglasses*. It was the early 90s, afterall.

Read More: Politicians playing musical instruments, ranked from worst to best

Let's peer behind those shades and look at the history of Clinton the saxophonist, and what others have made of his musical talent.

On The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992, Governor Clinton performed an arrangement of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” and Billie Holiday's famous tune, “God Bless The Child”.

Clinton was reportedly nervous about his late-night gig, and jokingly informed the band to play louder if he made too many mistakes. It was a bold move, as he appeared on the show just one day after securing the Democratic party nomination.

Whilst the appearance was intended to woo Arsenio’s core audience of younger viewers – and voters – this wasn’t the only attention the saxophonist ended up receiving.

Two weeks after Clinton’s television stardom, Entertainment Weekly invited Saxophonists David Sanborn, Stanley Turrentine, Phil Woods, and Jimmy Heath, to comment on the politician’s performance... and they gave their fellow instrumentalist some honest feedback.

“His tone was a little harsh,” admits bebop saxophonist Heath, “but at least he has a concept of the way music should sound.

“I admire his courage for exposing himself. When you’re standing up and playing before an audience, you’re being scrutinised at every moment.”

He also adds, “The sunglasses are a stereotype. You don’t need sunglasses inside a building in the middle of the night.”

Meanwhile, in relation to his presidential run, Sanborn commented, “He doesn’t really play like a President. I think Clinton plays like a Governor of Arkansas.” It's a statement that would be proved wrong when Clinton won the presidential election five months later.

”Keep [the] day job,” Sanborn cheekily added.

Not much is known about Clinton’s musical education, but we do know that he played sax in his high school band.

With Clinton’s election to the highest level of office in the United States after he won the presidential election in November 1992, the saxophone become the ‘White House’s First Instrument’, and there was a surge in popularity for this member of the woodwind family.

Instrument makers cashed in on the popularity, with many making their own “Presidential Model” saxophones inspired by Clinton.

While the former president may only be a decent amateur saxophonist at best, we have to thank him for inspiring many young musicians to take up the effortlessly cool instrument, including the Grammy-winning instrumentalist Kenny Olusola.